Sarnia Police Chief Phil Nelson has weighed in on the national controversy surrounding sexual assault investigations that don’t result in charges, saying his department’s rate of “unfounded” cases is lower than first reported.
Nelson said his personal review found that 15 of 78 cases initially deemed unfounded were incorrectly classified, reducing Sarnia’s rate of unfounded cases from 22% to 18% between 2010 and 2014.
That’s less than the national rate (19%) and provincial rate (25%) but still means nearly one in five sexual assault cases don’t result in charges.
“I know it’s got to be frustrating with any victim of crime when no charges are laid,” Chief Nelson said. “…but at the end of the day, you have to have evidence to lay the charge.”
Chief Nelson said sexual assault investigation are the most intrusive kind and can cause victims great distress.
“It takes a lot of courage” on their part,” he said.
“But remember that there is a big difference between saying an offence never took place and … that we can’t lay a charge.”
The chief was responding to public and political criticism stemming from a 20-month Globe and Mail investigation that found 19% of sexual assault investigations in Canada between 2010 and 2014 were classified as unfounded. The Globe report said over that period the Sarnia Police Service had an average of 22% unfounded sexual assault cases (78 of 359 allegations).
In response, Sarnia’s chief personally reviewed each investigation.
He said incorrect classifications occurred primarily because cases handed over to other jurisdictions were sometimes called unfounded and should have been classified differently; and cases involving accused persons under the age of 12 were incorrectly classified as unfounded.
The media attention has created controversy and prompted a review by the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police and the Canadian Centre for Justice Statistics, his report notes.
Nelson stressed that when a case is classified as unfounded it doesn’t necessarily mean the investigator doesn’t believe a criminal offence occurred.
“I think that is what’s drawn the attention of a lot of people,” he said.
An unfounded classification can mean there isn’t enough evidence to support charges, the chief said. “That may change later on.”
Nevertheless, he conceded, the current definition according to uniform crime reporting codes states that unfounded means, “it is concluded that no violation of the law took place, nor was a violation attempted.”
The chief said he also reviewed each of Sarnia’s 78 unfounded sexual assault cases and found they were conducted properly.
Coun. Anne Marie Gillis said last week that an internal review doesn’t go far enough. She said what’s needed is an independent, third party examination of the data.
‘We need to have fresh eyes, not an internal review, to capture what has been happening here in the city,” she said.
The Sarnia Police Services Board accepted the chief’s internal review and did not request another.