By J.W. Schnarr
Southern Alberta Newspapers – Lethbridge
Allegations made about the rates of sex-assault complaints deemed “unfounded” by police in a nearly two-year long Globe and Mail investigation lack proper context, says Taber’s police chief.
The Globe and Mail has done extensive reporting on the issue in their “Unfounded” series, documenting the statistics from 178 police services across the country in an area representing 92 per cent of the population.
Politicians at the highest levels have responded to the piece, citing a need to review the procedures for dealing with sex-assault complaints.
In an editorial, The Globe stated police are busy reviewing their unfounded complaints, to see why “5,000 complaints a year are being dismissed as false.”
Taber Police Service Chief Graham Abela has an answer:
He says those complaints aren’t being dismissed – because having a complaint classified as “unfounded” has nothing to do with whether police believe you or not.
He is upset his police department has been presented in a certain light due to a lack of proper context.
“I don’t think it’s fair to make any assumptions without identifying the limitations (of your investigation),” said Abela. “I don’t think the limitations were clearly articulated in the article.”
Abela said he told reporters TPS is a small department with very few reported sex assaults, and that the numbers were statistically too small for analysis – especially using just a simple average.
“I asked them to please reconsider their methodology if they were going to be using averages just to determine how we are doing as a police service with regards to our files,” he said.
He is disappointed his concerns about context were not considered, and the Globe and Mail simply went on raw numbers.
“It’s really dangerous as a researcher to apply means as a way to determine efficacy with such a small sample size,” he said.
The Globe reported the TPS “cleared as unfounded” rate to be 42 per cent over five years, or 19 of 45 allegations.
In 2014, the number spiked at six out of 11 complaints cleared as unfounded, or 55 per cent. Three of 11 complaints in 2014 were “cleared as charge.”
Abela said he went back through his files and remains satisfied with the results. He also said he has had no complaints from either the Crown or any victims agencies TPS deals with.
“Every one of (the unfounded cases) was absolutely scored correctly,” he said. “Regardless of what the Globe and Mail, or whoever, wants to say about the cases, they were accurate.”
He also takes issue with how the Globe and Mail chose to define “unfounded.”
“What is alleged is that people are coming to us, and we think they are lying,” he said. “In none of the cases we had did anyone lie.”
Staff Sgt. Scott Woods of the Lethbridge Police Service Criminal Investigation Section said there are a number of reasons a complaint could be deemed “unfounded.”
“Each investigation is unique,” he said. “And there are many challenges these assaults provide for investigating officers. It usually boils down to what we can determine in our investigation, physical evidence, and, a lot of the time, it’s one person’s word against another.”
Woods also said for LPS, “unfounded” does not mean “dismissed.”
“Because an investigation comes back as being unfounded, it really doesn’t mean we’re saying we don’t believe anybody,” he said. “We believe the victims. We investigate to the best of our abilities.”
In one unfounded complaint from Taber in 2014, a medical practitioner reported a suspected sexual injury they had discovered on a child. TPS conducted interviews and a medical examination was performed. The investigation determined no sexual assault had taken place.
In another complaint, police received a report from a social worker who had heard a story about someone being sexually assaulted.
In that instance, the potential victim stated she had fabricated the story and told it to a friend – who then repeated the story to others. As a result, that case, too, was deemed unfounded.
“Out of the six we had (in 2014), five were just like that,” said Abela. “These are third-party reports.”
Amy Hall, Executive Director of Safe Haven Women’s Shelter in Taber, said she was not surprised by the outcomes of the reporting overall, but could not speak on complaints in Taber even anecdotally due to privacy concerns.
She noted small communities have unique challenges when it comes to reporting and investigating sex-assault complaints, however.
“The confidentiality piece in a small town, I think is really difficult,” she said. “Police can be excellent at their job and it doesn’t matter, because if you, or your partner, or somebody is associated (with an officer in the community), I think it would be incredibly difficult and courageous to move forward with that.”
Hall said if there was an issue with TPS, she would contact them herself on behalf of the women she was working with.
“We have a good working relationship in that regard,” she said. “If there was an incident, I would definitely engage (police) with the client’s permission.”
“I was surprised where Taber was,” but in this context, it’s a really great opportunity to bring this conversation to the forefront,” she said. “Hopefully, it will be an opportunity to change it for the better.”
Ultimately, both Abela and Woods said they welcome the opportunity to look over their procedures to see if there are improvements to be made.
“When these things come to light, it’s a chance for us to reflect, and have a look at how we are doing it,” Woods said. “Maybe there are ways we can improve the quality of service we are providing.”