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“Unfounded” – a human rights issue

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February 16, 2017

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Special to The Globe and Mail
By: Renu Mandhane, Chief Commissioner, Ontario Human Rights Commission (OHRC)

Robyn Doolittle’s ground-breaking investigation “Unfounded” exposes how police services across Canada are “ill-equipped or unwilling to investigate sexual assault cases” with nearly 20% being dismissed as “unfounded.” At one point in the story, Doolittle asks police to explain the disproportionate “unfounded” rates. She is told by the police that the explanation might lie in coding errors or misclassification of cases, but we know that there are more factors at play. With “unfounded” rates of 19% across Canada and as high as nearly 60% in some jurisdictions, part of the answer must also lie in systemic bias against women – which is a human rights issue.

Like much of the systemic discrimination in the criminal justice system, failure to properly investigate and prosecute sexual offences likely begins with an over-reliance, whether consciously or unconsciously, on stereotypes. These stereotypes or “rape-myths” are myriad and well-documented: stereotypes about the type of women who get assaulted, how they should behave during an assault, and how they should behave afterwards.

In the past few years, high-profile trials and low conviction rates for sexual assaults have spurred conversations about these myths and the role they play in the courtroom.  The data that underpins Doolittle’s story sheds new light on this conversation. It shows how these myths likely operate in police services across the country in a way previously shielded from public scrutiny – before a robust investigation or laying criminal charges, let alone a trial. That is the power of data – it can shine a spotlight on an aspect of a problem that has previously been overlooked.

Systemic discrimination in policing remains a significant human rights issue in Canada and one that the Ontario Human Rights Commission (OHRC) has been tackling for well over a decade. This goes beyond the issues so plainly revealed in “Unfounded.” It includes failing to properly investigate thousands of cases of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls. It includes the over-policing of Black, Middle-Eastern and Indigenous men based on stereotypes. And it includes excessive use of force on people with mental health disabilities. The end result is that some groups of people are over-represented in our criminal justice system while some criminals are free to walk our streets.

In the wake of the publication of “Unfounded,” many police services, including the RCMP and OPP, have committed to review their handling of sexual assault allegations. The London Police Service, which has one of highest unfounded rates among Canadian cities, is auditing hundreds of cases and their Chief apologized to victims who felt unsupported. These are all positive signs. Change must start with the police themselves, from the Chief and Board on down – but we need to do more.

Addressing systemic discrimination is hard work, and it will take more than one internal audit to address the human rights concerns revealed in “Unfounded.” First, police must acknowledge systemic discrimination in policing and the negative impact it has on survivors of sexual violence, racialized people, Indigenous people and people with mental health disabilities. They should consider retaining third-party experts to perform an audit of their operations and collect data to identify the many circumstances where systemic discrimination occurs. They must enact policies and procedures to eliminate discretionary decisions that are often the breeding ground for discrimination. They must make sure that all officers and leaders receive rigorous training on systemic discrimination and human rights, ideally incorporating expert knowledge and the lived experiences of the groups most affected. They must ensure that their service reflects the community it serves, including promoting women and racialized people to leadership positions. Finally, independent monitoring and accountability must become accepted and standard practice. This includes continuously collecting and analyzing data to measure systemic bias in policing and disciplining officers who engage in discriminatory practices.

The OHRC has made enforcing human rights in the criminal justice system one of its key priorities for the next 3-5 years. We are also committed to promoting a human rights culture through education – to address and eliminate at the source the kinds of stereotypes that may be behind some of these statistics.

In the final analysis, this is about our humanity and the true meaning of equal justice for all. Sexual assault survivors must be taken seriously, racialized communities must be able to go about their daily lives in peace, Indigenous women and girls must have their lives valued, and people with mental health disabilities must be provided with police assistance when they are in crisis. As a society, we can do nothing less.


Read Chief Commissioner Renu Mandhane's Op-Ed in the Globe and Mail, published February 16, 2017.