Seven years ago, the Halton Regional Police Service (HRPS) was confronted with a stark reality: among all police services across Canada, it had one of the highest rates of dismissing sexual assault claims as "unfounded".
At the time, almost one every three reports was labelled "unfounded" and the investigations were dropped. Potentially hundreds of victims had been let down by HRPS over the years, while their assailants slipped from the reach of the justice system.
"We took a hard look at ourselves and said, 'We have an unfounded problem here,'" said Inspector Chris Newcombe, who now heads up the victim-based crime portfolio for HRPS, a unit of roughly 100 officers.
The poor record came to light as the result of a 20-month investigation led by Globe and Mail journalist Robin Doolittle into sexual assault in Canada, which found that nationally 19 per cent of complaints were being labelled "unfounded" and dropped, a far higher rate than for assault reports.
The Globe and Mail series spurred real change in Canadian policing around sexual assault and led to a review of 37,000 previously "unfounded" cases and far-reaching changes in the training for police officers who investigate sex crimes.
HRPS took action
In 2016, 32 to 33 per cent of sexual assault reports filed in Halton were labelled unfounded.
"That article written by Robin (Doolittle) was game-changing for policing, for sexual assault investigations, not just here in Halton but, obviously, Canada-wide," said Newcombe, who was a detective sergeant in the unit at the time.
"We took a good hard look at ourselves and realized we needed to make some changes. That was evident."
A Sexual Assault Advisory Committee was formed with the Police Services Board. The board sent out a survey seeking feedback from sexual assault survivors about their experiences with HRPS.
"Those surveys were sent back to the Police Services Board," Newcombe said. "At that point in time, they were working on our sex assault advisory committee and, basically, a number of recommendations were put forward to the advisory committee and that is how things progressed.
"To this day, we still meet monthly with our sex assault advisory committee. It's constant feedback, constant engagement with the sexual assault advisory committee and it has worked really well for us."
The meetings are attended by Victim Services Unit staff as well as community partners which include Thrive Counselling, Nina's Place, Sexual Assault and Violence Intervention Services (SAVIS), Elizabeth Fry Society, Halton Women's Place and representatives from the Crown Attorney's office.
"It's an opportunity for community partners to engage with us and vice versa about what we are seeing in our community," Newcombe said. "Quite often they are getting referrals that we don't see, suggestions that we don't see."
More than 200 sexual assaults are reported in Halton each year but the number of "unfounded" cases has decreased "substantially" since the Globe and Mail survey was done.
Of the 220 sexual assaults reported in Halton last year, seven were classed as unfounded, Newcombe said, bringing the rate down to 3.1 per cent, a remarkable turnaround.
"The officers had a lot of autonomy at the time," Newcombe said of the way sex assaults used to be handled when unfounded categorizations were more common. "In order to unfound something back then, quite often, it was the officer's gut feeling. They (may have) had some concerns with the survivor's credibility at the time. We didn't have the training in place that we have today."
Sometimes officers would assign a lack of credibility to a claim, when actually the victim was in a state of shock during their reporting. Now the officers have had trauma-informed training.
HRPS worked with well-known clinical psychologist Dr. Lori Haskell to understand what trauma might look like in a sexual assault survivor and how it might impact reporting.
"We have enhanced our protocol when it comes to unfounding an occurrence," Newcombe said. "Now it has to go through a number of layers of supervision before something can be unfounded."
The new approach is victim-centric; in order to unfound an allegation, there should be irrefutable evidence that the alleged incident did not happen.
Not all reports lead to criminal charges
While far fewer cases are dismissed as unfounded, many still do not make it to the point where charges are laid.
Of the 2022 reported sexual assaults, 27 per cent resulted in a charge, 9 per cent are still under investigation and 60 per cent resulted in other outcomes such as a warning or caution, which includes incidents where the victim requested that no further action be taken.
The rate of charges was down from 36 per cent in 2021 and 42 per cent in 2020. HRPS does not keep track of whether sexual assaults reported to the service result in a criminal conviction.
"Prior to 2017 (sexual assault numbers in Halton) were pretty consistent," Newcombe said. "We were seeing just under the 200 number a year and then all of a sudden, COVID happens and the numbers dropped."
Police reports dropped across the board, but since the end of lockdowns and other restrictions, the numbers have started to climb.
"What we are seeing now is an increase in sexual assault reporting certainly as a result of Robin Doolittle's article in the Globe but also the #MeToo movement," Newcombe said. "That was a game-changer, people felt empowered. People felt supported and they were coming forward.
"We get people all the time who just want to come forward and tell their story and maybe don't want charges laid or don't want a police investigation but want it on file."
The #MeToo effect
Historic offences being reported rose exponentially with the #MeToo movement. People started to call from all over the world, telling HRPS officers of past assaults in the region.
"We attribute that to the empowerment that that movement really impacted people," he said. "We are still seeing that today."
Newcombe said, regardless of how long ago an assault happened, it is worth reporting. "There is no statute of limitations when it comes to reporting a sexual assault," he said. "If something happened 10, 20, 30 years ago, we will investigate that just like it happened today. We will put 100 per cent investigative technique into it just like we would any current sexual assault. No doors are closed."
The big change now is "every sexual assault survivor who comes in is believed right out of the gates," Newcombe said. "It is a serious offence and people need to know that, if you walk into a police station, as a survivor of sexual assault, you are believed."
Doolittle has said one of the difficulties of working on the Unfounded series — which earned The Michener Award, Canada's top honour for public service journalism — was that the police services did not keep detailed records of unfounded cases, and no one was keeping track of sexual assault numbers in general.
Now, at HRPS every sexual assault reported to an officer is recorded and counted in the statistics.
"These officers take their jobs very seriously and they will put 100 per cent behind their investigation," Newcombe said.
There are 13 dedicated sexual assault investigators on his team. In an ideal world they would not be busy, but the reality is that they are.
"There is never a slowdown," Newcombe said. "It just continues. It is unfortunate but it is what we are seeing."
"We have made great strides since the Unfounded series came out. It's tough. You take a good hard look at yourself and you see it in black and white and you know you need to make a change. It is pretty humbling as a police service.
"We knew things needed to change. We have pushed in the right direction."
He added: "There is always room for improvement, there is always new training that can be had. There are always new studies that are coming to light. I think we need to just keep up with our training, keep up with the studies and information coming out and make sure we are able to conduct thorough investigations and offer the best support that we can as a police service."