Independent review of sex assault cases in Saskatoon to continue after inaugural year deemed a success

All parties involved in the victim advocate case review program in Saskatoon say the first year was a success.  (Guy Quenneville/CBC - image credit)
All parties involved in the victim advocate case review program in Saskatoon say the first year was a success. (Guy Quenneville/CBC - image credit)

The results are in from an independent team that was tasked with reviewing sexual assault cases closed by Saskatoon police officers without charges being laid.

Feedback from the reviewers prompted changes meant to improve the reporting process for survivors.

Police services across the country came under national scrutiny after an investigation by the Globe and Mail revealed that 19 per cent of sexual assault complaints in Canada were deemed unfounded by police between 2010 and 2014.The "unfounded" label on cases meant that police investigated and officers determined that an offence did not occur.

Saskatoon police collaborated with staff from the Saskatoon Sexual Assault & Information Centre (SSAIC) to conduct the review in 2022. The reviewers assessed 172 police files for strengths, weaknesses and potential concerns. They determined that 42 of the closed files (24 per cent) required a closer look from police management.

Some of the files were reopened, although no charges were laid as a result.

"We couldn't type substantiate any type of charge moving forward, but it did help us get a more thorough approach. The most important part is that now it's establishing a bar and setting a standard for that future sex crimes investigators must follow," said Supt. Patrick Nogier with the Saskatoon Police Service.

On Thursday, Nogier presented a report on the 2022 Victim Advocate Case Review program to the city's board of police commissioners.

Nogier said SPS has already taken steps to improve the way it works with people reporting sexual assaults because of the review team's feedback.

"Language that to me was very common — with respect to communication to a sexual assault survivor — was deemed to be somewhat problematic from a victim advocate lens."

Reagan Conway, executive director of SSAIC, told the board of police commissioners that one of their concerns was the way officers were providing case updates to victims. She noted certain phrasing could make victims blame themselves or feel as if they weren't a "good victim."

"There wasn't enough information as to why it was continuing or [the investigation] was just closed because it couldn't go any further, and so we gave ideas on how to give that feedback without the victim feeling that it was their fault."

Officers now have phrasing and scripts from the SSAIC. Conway said she hopes the partnership leads to better experiences for survivors of assault, whether that's helping them understand why charges weren't laid or having investigators take another look at a case.

Sexual violence common, but under-reported

Sexual violence is incredibly under-reported, which is part of why it's so important that the cases that are reported be investigated thoroughly and that victims trust they will be taken seriously, said Kristina Kaminiski, collaborative community justice co-ordinator for the Sexual Assault Services of Saskatchewan.

Kaminski has participated in conversations provincially and nationally about case review programs, which have been in development across Canada for more than a decade. She said the programs are about bringing two groups of experts together to highlight what's being done well and to solve problems or identify barriers.

"The whole point of this essentially is that survivors individually will no longer have to force themselves to take on the justice system and self advocate for their case —  to create that FOI and say, 'Hey, what happened? I don't understand why charges weren't laid,'" she said.

She said tweaks to language used by officers can prevent further harm during the reporting process.

"Then survivors can ensure that they can leave that criminal justice process and not have it be that re-traumatizing, harrowing experience."

She said police transparency allows these agencies to better understand the process, from the initial report to its conclusion.

In Saskatoon, the review team was provided with unrestricted access to copies of all police reports, file assignments, videos, interview transcripts and medical reports. Reviewers considered things like the completeness of files, the interview process, trauma informed approaches to questioning and referrals.

Kaminski noted Saskatchewan has some of the highest rates of sexual and domestic violence in the country.

It's not just the violence that's problematic, but also the beliefs and attitudes about the violence that allow it to persist and go unchecked in Saskatchewan, she said.

"Our understanding of sexual violence as a whole, I think in this province, is incredibly poor and is steeped in a lot of bias and myths."

She said programs like the case review model can cause positive change.

She said it's important survivors feel comfortable reporting to police and one step toward that is knowing there'll be a second set of eyes — someone with a different perspective — on the file.

Kaminski said similar review programs are coming to Moose Jaw and Prince Albert.

As for Saskatoon, the case review program will continue into 2023 and Nogier said SPS is considering different methods of reporting that could make it easier for victims to come forward.