Some RCMP officers still aren’t taking sexual assault claims seriously enough, watchdog says
The civilian watchdog agency overseeing the RCMP routinely takes Mounties to task for bungling sexual assault investigations, despite the RCMP’s promises to do better.
A spokesperson for the Civilian Review and Complaints Commission (CRCC) for the RCMP said the agency has issued 43 “adverse findings” — conclusions that were unfavourable to the RCMP — in cases involving sexual assault investigations since 2019.
Some of those case files have been posted online, with names and locations redacted for privacy reasons.
CBC’s analysis of the CRCC’s findings and recommendations shows many RCMP officers still fail to take sexual assault allegations seriously and struggle with matters of consent.
The RCMP, for its part, said it is updating its operational manual for sexual assault investigations, providing online training for such scenarios and has made trauma-informed training mandatory for employees who deal with the public.
One of the cases posted online, completed in 2021, involved a woman who reported that a truck driver who had picked her up when she was hitchhiking later pushed her out of the truck when she refused his sexual advances. According to a summary of the case file that was made public by the CRCC, bystanders found the woman injured at the side of the road and called 911.
The CRCC summary says that when the woman went to an RCMP detachment, she took questions from investigators and met with the forensic sketch artist. Her interview with RCMP officers lasted approximately six and a half hours, including breaks.
The summary says that after the sketch artist completed his drawing, he informed the woman that he was an RCMP officer and began to challenge her on the truthfulness of her account.
The sketch artist and the lead investigator then both questioned the woman about her memory and emotional state, said the CRCC.
The woman complained about the sketch artist’s behaviour to the RCMP, which said it did not support her allegations.
‘Inappropriate myths and stereotypes’
The CRCC then became involved and, according to its case summary, concluded the investigation was “conducted unreasonably.”
“The commission found that some of the RCMP members’ approach and questioning of the woman was based on inappropriate myths and stereotypes about the conduct of sexual assault victims,” reads the case summary.
“One example of such questioning involved comparing the woman’s behaviour to a preconceived notion of how she ‘should’ react. The Commission noted that it is widely recognized in law that there is no uniform or predictable victim response to a sexual assault.”
In another RCMP case summarized by the CRCC, a woman reported that a man had touched her genital area over her clothes without her consent.
The responding RCMP officers dismissed the complainant’s report of a sexual assault, suggested that the incident did not meet the level of a criminal offence and closed her file, said the CRCC case summary.
While the summary stated the RCMP officers said they felt no offence had been committed, they offered the woman an opportunity to proceed through the restorative justice process — which gives victims an opportunity to talk to those responsible after a crime. But when she contacted the restorative justice liaison, said the CRCC, she was told that the file was never referred.
She complained to the CRCC, which sided with her. The commission called the investigation “inadequate and therefore unreasonable.”
“The commission also found that the RCMP members demonstrated a lack of understanding of the evidence required to support a charge of sexual assault, and displayed an improper attitude towards the complainant,” says the redacted case summary.
In another case reviewed by the CRCC, the watchdog found an officer “lacked knowledge and training” on whether the removal of a condom during sexual intercourse amounted to a criminal offence — despite a Supreme Court ruling that said people who don’t wear condoms during sex after being told to by their partners can be convicted of sexual assault.
Other cases studied by the CRCC involved a Mountie who was reprimanded during a sexual assault investigation for being “rude and abrupt” and officers who were criticized for maintaining improper records during reviews.
A ‘grossly inadequate’ investigation
And in another case, the watchdog called out a member over what it called a “grossly inadequate” investigation.
The officer arrested a woman on a historical allegation of sexual assault without talking to witnesses who could have been consulted to corroborate key allegations, said the CRCC. The officer also made the arrest when “an arrest was not an available option” under the Criminal Code, the watchdog added.
Ultimately, the officer did not file charges — but neglected to inform the woman of this fact, said the CRCC.
“The commission found that this investigation was profoundly deficient. Not even the most basic investigative steps were completed,” the watchdog agency reported.
“Little to no effort was placed on following up with even the most obvious sources of evidence.”
Humera Jabir, a lawyer with West Coast LEAF (Legal Education and Action Fund), said she’s seen these types of findings before.
“We’re really just stuck in a loop,” she said.
Jabir said the small number of cases that make it to the CRCC don’t tell the full story.
“Even if the CRCC is making adverse findings, that is of such a small percentage of the cases which were even reported to police,” she said.
“That’s such a concern, that there are so many people that are not reporting because they don’t have any faith in the system or in the faith of police to really handle their case with seriousness.”
The CRCC said that, since 2019, it has made 45 recommendations regarding sexual assault investigations directed at RCMP policies, procedures, protocols and training.
Those recommendations are not binding; the RCMP is free to ignore them. RCMP Commissioner Brenda Lucki supported 41 of those recommendations, partially supported one and did not support three of them, said Kate McDerby, spokesperson for the CRCC.
Jabir said she wants to see the federal government legislate police accountability.
“Because the CRCC’s recommendations are not binding on the RCMP, it’s a challenge to having those addressed,” she said.
“Saying that they’re responsible for ensuring that these recommendations are implemented is one thing, but actually holding the RCMP to task to ensure that they are implemented is something that we need to see.”
Changes to CRCC proposed in new bill
The Liberal government introduced a bill last spring that would expand the CRCC’s mandate to allow it to take on complaints about border officers.
If passed, Bill C-20 would also require the heads of the RCMP and the Canada Border Services Agency to report annually to the public safety minister on progress in implementing commission recommendations.
The RCMP said its sexual assault review team (SART) is currently in the process of updating its operational manual “to assist with sexual violence investigations.”
“In addition, an online training course was developed by SART titled ‘Consent Law and Common Sexual Assault Myths,’ which includes a section on ‘Basics of Consent’ wherein the absence of consent is discussed through key Canadian decisions, and includes the issue of tampering with contraceptives,” said RCMP spokesperson Robin Percival.
She also said trauma-informed training is mandatory for all RCMP employees who interact with the public.
“The RCMP considers all public complaints to be important and tries to address them in as timely a manner as possible, while at the same time ensuring they are assessed thoroughly and appropriately. The RCMP strongly values independent review of its policies, and of the actions of its members,” said Percival.
“To that end, the RCMP welcomes the findings and recommendations made by the CRCC at the conclusion of its investigations.”
In response to intense public pressure, the force has promised in recent years to improve the way it investigates sexual assaults.
The force has committed to creating a national unit to provide training, guidance and oversight for sexual assault investigations and provide advice and guidance on sexual assault files when the RCMP is the police service of jurisdiction.
Jabir said victims of sexual assault who want to report their cases should have an advocate or some kind of support person helping them through the process.
“It’s important for survivors to know that this is a process that is flawed,” she said.