The term “unfounded” used to be just another adjective, but thanks to investigative reporter Robyn Doolittle, it is now a pressing issue that all of Canada is talking about.
On Feb. 3, The Globe and Mail released the first instalment of its 20-month-long investigation into how police in Canada handle complaints of sexual assault, which revealed that one in five cases are dismissed as “unfounded.” The groundbreaking story detailed the inconsistencies in how these cases are handled across the nation, shedding new light on why so many sexual assault cases never even make it into the courtroom.
“Unfounded” refers to a designation that appears on thousands of police reports across Canada; these cases are closed because they have been found to be unsubstantiated. In other words, police do not believe that what took place constitutes sexual assault.
“What does unfounded mean to you? What does unfounded mean to anybody? It means ‘You’re lying,’” Ottawa criminologist Holly Johnson told The Globe and Mail.
After the first story hit stands, we called up Doolittle to find out what it took to put this investigation together, the moments that really hit home for her and what we can expect next.
How did this all start for you?
It was the summer of 2015, and at the time it seemed like there was endless Ghomeshi coverage, and we were hearing about the fall of Bill Cosby, and The Hunting Ground documentary about rape on American college campuses had come out, and I just felt like I kept getting into the same conversation about how the system was failing sexual assault victims. It made me think: is this something that I could look into? I started doing some reading, and I came across this study that talked about unfounded rates. I had never heard of the topic before, which was interesting because I used to be a police reporter. People always talk about how police don’t believe women, and here, all along, police services were stamping cases “true” or “not true” and I just needed to get those codes. That was the genesis of this project.
This investigation was a massive undertaking. How did you know where to start?
A lot of the time when you’re starting off on these projects, you don’t know for sure that it’s going to be a big thing. You do reporting for a while before you make a decision that you’re going to commit. First I tried to get the numbers from StatsCan (who told me they don’t release that data anymore) and individual police services (who told me they’re not available). So I realized I was going to have to go through the freedom of information process. Initially, I pulled out a map of Canada and targeted all the big cities, capitals and some random small places just for interest’s sake and mailed out about 50 freedom of information (FOI) requests. Early in 2016, when we got all the requests back, we sat down with the editors and looked at what we wanted to do—whether we wanted to run a story based on those numbers or if we wanted to do something bigger. The decision was that if we were going to do it, we needed to go really big. That’s where we set out to get data from 1,119 police jurisdictions.
When did you realize that this was a really important story that no one was talking about?
It came so slowly in some ways. There were hundreds of FOIs and they would come back one at a time so you don’t really get a sense of the whole country in that instance, you just see what one police service is doing. We didn’t get the stat that showed that 1 in 5 cases are dismissed as “unfounded” until October.
Did you go in with key questions that you wanted answered or did you let the data drive your inquiry?
As the reports started coming back individually, the thing that jumped out was that there seemed to be no pattern. The numbers varied dramatically depending on the police service that was responding, even if they were close in proximity. I wanted to know: what are the policies around the country that are creating these huge variations? It was interesting because it looks like there’s just a patchwork system of policies, procedures and training mandates across the country. Just as the unfounded rates are all over the place, so is the standardization in this country.
You interviewed 54 complainants from across the country, was there any particular conversation or moment that stood out for you?
I don’t really know how to phrase it. You’re hearing over and over again about the worst day in someone’s life that they’ve never talked about with anybody before. What really struck me when I started interviewing more complainants is that many of them felt like they were alone, that they had done something wrong because of the way that they were treated. They felt isolated. I saw the same patterns coming up over and over again where the person had reported to police. I repeatedly heard how after they reported, they had no communications with the officer. Many of them had their cases closed without their knowledge, and only found out when they called back for an update. Many of them said the officer made remarks that they took to be victim blaming. What was really shocking to me was the vast majority of the complainants weren’t angry, they felt embarrassed. It was heartbreaking.
The story begins with Ava, a young woman who says she was sexually assaulted in London, Ontario seven years ago. Out of everyone you interviewed, why did you decide to lead with her story?
What is really significant to me about Ava’s story is that when it came to me, it wasn’t special. She saw an appeal on Facebook that a Globe journalist was looking into this so she got in touch with me. And her story isn’t crazy. It’s a regular, average case. I interviewed her, and it’s a very upsetting story, but I wouldn’t say that it’s any more upsetting than any of the others. What was different is that I had encouraged everyone that I interviewed to apply for their police record through the freedom of information process. Ava was able to get her records. She didn’t want to see them, but she gave them to me and once I watched the video of the officer interviewing her, it was so apparent to me that there were a lot of key problems with it. It was also an unfounded case, which Ava didn’t even know. I think it perfectly illustrated a lot of the problems that are happening right now.
One of the issues that the police seem concerned with in the tape is the fact that her memory was hazy. Now, seven years later, how did you tackle that as a reporter, making sure that everything you wrote was accurate?
That is why Ava’s case was the easiest to tell in detail. Whenever I’ve been rolling out these articles, I’ve tried to stick to stories where I could point to another layer that supports what they’re saying. Ava didn’t remember a lot of what happened and to be honest, she didn’t say that the cop was horrible to her or anything. She just told me what happened, that the police interview was difficult, but she couldn’t pinpoint why it left her feeling so horrible. So that’s where the police reports and the video filled in a lot of the gaps in both her memory and her understanding. Almost everything in Ava’s story is from the police reports or that video.
When you’re so immersed in a story for so long, did you find it hard to leave the office and be part of regular life?
For me, every time that I interviewed somebody, I would get more fired up about it. So many of them would tell me “I hope you’re taking care of yourself too,” and I just thought that was incredible; that there were these people sharing these horrible memories with me, and they’re concerned about how I’m feeling about hearing it. I am very excited and motivated to give all those people a voice, and The Globe and Mail was very committed to that as well. [The Globe and Mail is running one a complainant’s story every day in the paper and online, as well as multiple follow-up stories]
What was going through your mind the night before this hit stands?
It was two things: Did I spell everything correctly? That was a legitimate worry. And two, when you work on something for so long, sometimes you can’t see it clearly anymore, so I was really curious as to how people would take the story and whether it would generate the kind of feelings with Canadians as it did for me and my editor.
Did the story generate the response that you were hoping for from politicians and police?
I don’t know if I was expecting for it to go this fast. We’ve had the Prime Minister and cabinet ministers coming out right away and saying this is a huge problem that we have to address. We’ve had the public safety minister calling for a cross-country review of how police handle sexual assault cases. We’ve already had seven police services say they’re going to go back and review sexual assault cases. And we’ve had the London police service issue an apology to victims who felt like they were let down. There’s tons of positive movement. Now we’re going to spend the rest of the year making sure that these things actually happen, and that this isn’t just a quote. [On Feb. 8, The Globe and Mail reported that the RCMP will not reopen past cases but will look into how it reviews future sexual assault complaints.]
What do you want readers to take away from this story?
The goal is to shine a light on something that wasn’t known about before. It’s not about having readers take away something, I guess, I’m just trying to put this issue out there. I think there is a problem, there is consensus that others think this is a problem, and the solutions are not going to be easy, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try.
Following the Rob Ford investigation, you published a book detailing the behind-the-scenes details about how you got the story. Do you think you might do the same here?
I’d have to see where the story goes. This is a topic that I’ve put a lot into, that I’m very passionate about and I would like to see it through—no matter where that would go.
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