“We Go In, We Ask Questions.”

While we frequently field requests for information about improving police response to sexual assault, Canadian reporters and advocates have been especially interested in our work since February, when The Globe and Mail published “Unfounded,” a 20-month investigation into how Canadian police handle—and mishandle—rape cases.

The investigation revealed that one of every five sexual-assault allegations in Canada is dismissed as baseless and thus unfounded. The CBC just published a new report about efforts to address “unfounded” cases.

Today, the Waterloo Regional Police Task Force on sexual assault are meeting for the first time. Police and a group of more than 20 community members are going to review the 27% of sexual assault cases in the region that were deemed “unfounded.”

The Morning Edition with Craig Norris host Craig Norris spoke with Carol about our work, the Philadelphia model, and how advocates can help Canadian police improve their response to rape cases.

Listen to the 7-minute interview here, or read the transcription:

How does the Philadelphia case review model work?

It’s actually very simple. We’re a very large jurisdiction so we have about 6,000 cases coming in to the Special Victims Unit. For a three-day period a group of us, of advocates, review about 400 of those cases. We look at all unfounded rapes, and we look at any cases that have a non-UCR category, such a third-party report or medical investigation. We then look at a cross-section of open cases.

WLP’s Terry Fromson (left) and Carol Tracy talking to Philadelphia Police Commissioner John Timoney about re-opened rape case files in 2002.

Why do you think it was so successful? Why do you think other people adopted this as a model?

It was a very bold move on the part of the late John Timoney, who was the police commissioner at the time. He realized, this is what he said to me, that the community had lost trust in him.

I think this is the precursor to what we call community policing today, where police leadership in many places understand that the community has to trust you and you have to trust the community. That’s what this model is about. It’s a tool. I repeatedly say it’s not the only thing needed—you need to have appropriate supervision and you need internal accountability, but you also need outside eyes in an area like rape and sexual assault [because these crimes] have just been permeated with bias against rape victims.

How did the Women’s Law Project become involved?

We’re a women’s rights organization, we work on a broad range of issues from reproductive rights, to violence against women, and gender discrimination. The Philadelphia Inquirer called us, the newspaper that did a report similar to [the recent expose “Unfounded” published by the The Globe and Mail].

We led the reform effort along with our rape crisis center, Women Organized Against Rape, and child advocacy groups [the Support Center for Child Advocates and the Philadelphia Children’s Alliance].

Was there a feeling that your organization were there to be critical of police?

The police were subjected to a significant amount of public scrutiny, both by Philadelphia City Council, because we asked them to hold hearings, and news coverage. They did their own internal review, they put in a completely new supervisory and administrative structure in the police department. The police commissioner said to me, “When you are reviewing these cases, [if] you can’t reach a resolution, you come to me about that.” So the process we engaged in, we say it wasn’t ‘a gotcha,’ it was about systems improvement.

They aired their dirty laundry, they put in a number of important measures to improve themselves internally, and our job moving forward was to make the process better. We are clearly not police, we don’t go in and try to re-investigate cases.

We go in, we ask questions. We look to see that the cases have been properly coded, we make sure all the witnesses have been interviewed, we look to see that all of the evidence has been collected, we look to see if there’s an interview instead of an interrogation [of the victim].

We look for indications of the victim-blaming that has been so commonplace in police practice, and throughout society quite frankly. That’s our role in this. Clearly it started in a more confrontational way, at least in our testimony before City Council and in initial meetings with the police commissioner, but once we sat around that table we all agreed we would become partners. And it’s worked that way.

Has the case review model changed how sexual assault cases are investigated [in Philadelphia]?

We’ve certainly seen a significant improvement in the case files over the years. Also, during this period of time, the whole body of trauma theory has developed, and the police just recently had a major training on trauma-informed investigations of sex crimes, so I think there’s been an increase in knowledge about the impact of trauma on victim behavior. There’s clearly been much greater attention paid to this, and the investigations have improved. They’re simply not, quite frankly, as sloppy as when we first looked at them.

Has that led to more women coming forward?

The police commissioner, within two years of this beginning, announced there had been a 20% increase [in reports].  I think when we first looked at this there were around 4,000 cases, and they are up to 6,000 now. I hope that it means that more sexual assault victims are willing to report to the police, that they [believe they] will be treated appropriately.

Finally, the Waterloo Regional police are launching their task force tomorrow. What advice do you have for them?

They have to trust the community they serve.

The Women’s Law Project is the only public interest law center in Pennsylvania devoted to advancing the rights of women and girls.

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About womenslawproject

The Women's Law Project creates a more just and equitable society by advancing the rights and status of all women throughout their lives. To this end, we engage in high-impact litigation, advocacy, and education.
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