Strength Through Community is the backbone of Central Saanich Police Service and it’s something they take very seriously.
And so when a Globe and Mail investigation came out earlier this month stating that Central Saanich had the highest rate of unfounded sexual assault cases in the country, suggesting that equated to police not believing the victims of sexual assault, it was no surprise police were unimpressed.
“This was one of the most difficult things to hear as a police officer,” said Les Sylven, Central Saanich’s police chief.
The newspaper’s investigation stated that Central Saanich held the highest unfounded sexual assault rates in the country, with 15 of 25 allegations cleared as unfounded. That’s 60 per cent of reported sexual assaults to Central Saanich Police deemed unfounded — or without evidence or corroborating witnesses.
“I was really bothered by it and the reason why is first and foremost, it’s inaccurate. It’s a misinterpretation of a statistic,” said Sylven.
What Sylven said is that those 15 of 25 did not result in charges.
“That is a long way from saying we don’t believe you,” he said.
A breakdown of the 15 is as follows, according to Sylven:
• six had insufficient evidence to charge someone
• four resulted in the victim coming back later and saying the sexual assault didn’t happen
• three were what they call third party reporting, where someone else reported the sexual assault and the victim said it wasn’t the case
• two were not considered sexual assaults.
“One of the reasons that we have such a problem with this story is that we know that probably the hardest thing a person can do in their life after being sexually assaulted is to come forward and tell someone,” said Sylven.
The headline of the report in big bold letters read ‘Will the Police Believe You?’ something that Sylven found completely disturbing.
He said the article inaccurately told people that in Central Saanich particularly, 60 per cent of the time, the police aren’t going to believe you. He said that is entirely against everything the police department tries to do every day.
“Our whole ability to function as a police department comes from the community trusting us, and if they see this inaccurate misrepresentation of statistics translated into something that says ‘the police are not going to believe you,’ it’s disheartening for them and its disheartening for us.”
Constable Vanessa Fields, investigator with the General Investigation Section for Sidney North Saanich RCMP said unfounded can mean that police can’t prove an allegation to the standard of proof of the courts that it happened.
“We’re not saying that it didn’t happen. We’re just saying we weren’t able to get that evidence,” she said.
She said sometimes allegations are unfounded because they end up being a false report, whereas sometimes police will mark a case ‘unfounded’ until they can speak with the victim.
“Sometimes we’re aware that a sexual assault occurred and we do get all that corroborating evidence, but until we have the victim coming forward and saying ‘this is what happened,’ we can’t say for sure that it did.”
Sidney’s unfounded sexual assault percentage was among one of the lowest rates in the country at five per cent, or four out of 81 allegations.
When it comes to investigating sexual assault complaints, police need to first be made aware that something has happened.
Fields said this can also be done from third party reporting. Once that happens, police try to speak with the victim.
Even if the victim doesn’t co-operate initially, she said, they still try and get the corroborating evidence, as sometimes that evidence can be lost.
This is done in case the victim changes their mind.
If there were witnesses, they also try and get those statements as well.
Both police departments encourage people to report sexual assaults.
“It’s grossly underreported to begin with and a lot of victims feel personal responsibility. They feel as though they’ve contributed to the offence, so there’s a lot of guilt involved,” said Fields.
Having investigated this type of crime for 10 years, Sylven knows all too well how difficult it can be for the victim.
He said right off the bat is taking a look at the wellness of the victim, and then comes the perishable evidence police need to collect, such as documenting bruising or scratching on the victim.
Sylven said they will follow that evidence and believe the victim every single time until there is evidence that shows something else has taken place.
“I know how hard this entire sexual assault investigation can be on someone and they need to know that they can trust us, that we believe them,” said Sylven.
Sylven said another inaccuracy in the report stated that the percentage of unfounded cases was likely to occur in places that have a small number of female officers.
Although Central Saanich has only four females of the 23 officers, this was not the case.
“In those 15 cases of the 25 where charges were not laid, eight of those were investigated by a female detective,” he said.
In other words, over 60 per cent of the ‘unfounded’ cases were reported by female officers, a statistic the report never mentioned.
Sexual assaults are amongst the most serious crimes that they investigate, averaging four or five reports of sexual assault a year.
Despite the negativity of the report, Sylven among many other police officers across the Peninsula do everything they can to offer their support.