The Stratford police services board voted Wednesday to allow the Stratford Police Service to continue and enhance a sexual-assault-review program involving a team of advocate reviewers that was implemented as a pilot over the past three years.
More than three years after the Stratford police services board implemented a sexual-assault-review pilot program aimed at addressing the high rate of sexual assault cases being classified by local police as unfounded, the program has now been adopted as an ongoing initiative between Stratford police and a local advocate-review team.
The move to adopt the program as standard practice by Stratford police came during Wednesday’s police services board meeting after members listened to a presentation on the pilot program by two of the advocate-review team’s founding members.
“It’s the first step on a long road, and there are still services and provisions of service that we need to provide in our community that enhance and drastically improve the experience of victims,” board chair Mayor Dan Mathieson said during Wednesday’s meeting.
“We need to turn our attention to building our coalition so we can continue to do so…. I think the transparency this provides also gives victims and the broader community a better understanding of what is available for victims, and that we’re treating the most vulnerable, at their time of need, with the most dignity we can.”
After an an internal Stratford police review in 2017 revealed that nearly one in five sexual assault cases investigated by local police were classified as unfounded, Stratford became the first community in Ontario to adopt the advocate-case-review model pioneered years earlier by a Philadelphia police commissioner.
Since then, a team comprising five trained reviewers – three from Optimism Place Women’s Shelter and two from The Emily Murphy Centre – have conducted seven biannual reviews spanning nearly 30 sexual assault cases investigated by police over the last four years.
“We want to be very clear that the reviews include all cases not cleared by charge, so not necessarily just unfounded cases,” said Lisa Wilde, executive director of the Emily Murphy Centre and a member of the advocate review team, before noting that the team is currently not allowed to review cases involving a complainant under the age of 16 and where the accused is under the age of 18.
” … The review must include full information (on) everything the (investigating) officer has relied upon or had access to when coming to their own reasonable and probable-grounds decision, and that has been very forthcoming with Stratford police. We get full and complete files.”
After reading through each case, reviewing survivor statements and considering factors like a survivor’s previous interactions with police, the team meets with senior Stratford police officials to provide feedback on the case and investigation. The police chief and senior police officials then determine on their own whether that feedback is forwarded on to the investigations’ team for additional action.
The advocate review team has no input into whether the cases they review are investigated further.
Though the advocate team is required by law to keep all details of the cases they review confidential, both Wilde and Optimism Place Women’s Shelter executive director Jasmine Clark – another member of the review team – said their feedback to police has already resulted in a number of improvements to the way Stratford officers conduct sexual-assault investigations.
These improvements include more-welcoming interview rooms for survivors, changes to police interview styles aimed at helping survivors feel more comfortable and at ease during the process, a shift away from police focusing on victim behaviour instead of that of the accused during interviews, and a better working relationship with more trust between Stratford police and local advocates for the prevention of violence against women.
“Overall we’re seeing a better understanding of trauma and the impacts of trauma on survivors’ memory and recollection of events, which is fabulous,” Wilde said.
Stratford police Chief Greg Skinner said the program has become a valuable addition to the police service, and asked the board to adopt it permanently and begin looking at ways to expand and enhance the advocate-review team’s role following the end of the pilot program in March.
“I think this is a no-brainer, but I just want to make sure that the board is ok with us continuing beyond the pilot and continuing to expand the program as we see fit … and entrench it in the service-delivery model,” Skinner said.
While both Wilde and Clark said they are pleased with the progress the team has made thus far, they noted there is still a large gap in services available to victims of sexual assault in Stratford, including a lack of rape kits available locally, forcing victims to travel to Kitchener for testing, and a need for the establishment of a sexual-assault crisis centre in Stratford.