RCMP review urges education on rape myths, consent for investigators

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RCMP met with advocates, who reviewed their sexual assault investigations to improve the way police respond to reports of sexual violence.  (CBC - image credit)
RCMP met with advocates, who reviewed their sexual assault investigations to improve the way police respond to reports of sexual violence. (CBC - image credit)

A review of N.W.T. RCMP sexual assault investigations found that while officers generally showed victims respect, some misunderstood consent law, rape myths or included irrelevant personal opinions in their investigations.

In 2017, an RCMP report titled The Way Forward prompted police to launch third-party advocate reviews of their officers' investigations for systemic and societal biases, and to ensure they were thorough, impartial and properly classified.

The reviews are intended to produce recommendations to police and restore public confidence by improving accountability for police agencies across North America, a March 23 news release from RCMP stated.

The NT Sexual Assault Investigations Review Committee is made up of the territory's justice department, police, and organizations that represent victim services or community advocates, such as the Status of Women Council of the NWT.

They reviewed investigations from seven N.W.T. communities that were classified as being "unfounded," having insufficient evidence to proceed or if the victim declined to move forward.

Committee review findings

Overall, the committee found N.W.T. police conducted thorough, timely investigations in a trauma-informed manner, and respected a victim's needs, the report said.

However, the committee identified two of the seven police reports contained an officer's personal opinion, which was irrelevant to the investigation and could show a "lack of understanding of rape myths and consent law."

The committee said some investigators needed training on consent, rape myths and levels of intoxication.

It also found incomplete documentation and missing context, including whether police spoke to certain witnesses and suspects.

The committee recommended investigators explain the process more thoroughly to victims, and that victims should be able to choose the gender of the officer they speak to.

Seek expertise when youth are victimized

The committee also advised when youth are involved, police should consult the youth's guardian or social services as well as RCMP units with expertise in interviewing children.

Cpl. Jesse Aubin, N.W.T. RCMP's family violence coordinator expressed deep appreciation for the advocate groups that took part in the review.

"We look forward to continually learning and hearing from them, based on their extensive experience as front line providers supporting survivors of sexual violence," said Aubin.

The NWT Status of Women said its participation in the committee will "reduce the potential for re-traumatization during the investigation process, to inform the creation of safer, more supportive, and empowering environments for these people, and to increase the likelihood that these people will seek further help as part of their healing journey."

The next review will be held in April 2021, and another will be held this fall.

Ongoing reviews are shown to reduce victim-blaming biases that discourage survivors from reporting the crimes perpetrated against them, the release stated.

Exploring alternatives to reporting through police

As part of The Way Forward, RCMP said the service would explore alternative ways for victims to come forward with their assaults, including third-party reporting.

This mechanism allows someone to report their assault to a third party, who is professionally trained to collect a report and evidence from a victim over the age of 19 who makes the informed choice not to involve police directly.

Third-party reporting is available in the Yukon, but not yet in the N.W.T.

The report is provided to RCMP without the victim's name attached, allowing RCMP to track repeat offenders. They can also connect with victims, through the third party, if the victim later wants to bring their allegations in court.

The N.W.T. government's Community Justice and Policing Division is currently developing a model of third-party reporting that will work in the Northwest Territories, a department spokesperson told CBC in an email in December.

The model being considered involves non-governmental organizations and victim services providers, and so the department must first ensure those organizations have the capacity to take on third-party reporting, they wrote.

N.W.T.'s rates of sexual assault reporting low

A December report from Statistics Canada shows staggering rates of sexual violence in the N.W.T. and especially poor outcomes for LGBTQ2+ people, those with disabilities and women over the age of 15.

It also confirmed reporting rates are still dismal — only 13 per cent of sexual assaults are reported to police, compared to physical assaults, where rates sit between 32 per cent for men and 39 per cent for women.

Women were most likely to speak to a friend (64 per cent) rather than a family member (36 per cent).

Victim blaming, also known as "secondary victimization," is a defining factor in a victim's decision to not speak up about the violence they experienced, the report said.

The prevalence of sexual violence is harming victims' mental health, with more than a quarter of women who have been victimized reporting "poor" or "fair" mental health, the report shows.

Residents who were sexually or physically assaulted were more likely to report health issues like alcohol and drug use or homelessness.