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The way forward on sexual assault on campus

Ottawa Citizen by Elizabeth Sheehy and Allan Rock 5 February 2016

Two years ago, allegations of sexual violence involving students led the University of Ottawa to create a task force on respect and equality, with a mandate to recommend policies and practices to create a safe and respectful environment on campus.

The task force has since reported. We have accepted all of its recommendations, and work is underway towards their implementation. The university still has much to do. Attitudes and practices do not change overnight. There are still gaps and weaknesses in our response to sexual violence. But we are determined to address them.

But the university can only succeed if our partners in the greater Ottawa community do their part. This includes the Ottawa Police Service. Where complaints of sexual violence involving our students, faculty or staff are brought to police, we must be able to rely on a swift and professional police response.

The case involving our student Mélodie Morin, reported by the Citizen on Jan. 4, shows that we have not yet achieved that ideal.

Morin reported to police on Sept. 25, 2015 that she had been punched, strangled, raped and spat upon. Following their initial month-long investigation, police informed Morin on Nov. 5 that they would not lay charges because the alleged assailant told them that the incident had simply been a “misunderstanding.”

Morin refused to accept their decision. She bravely enlisted public support. She spoke to media, using her name and allowing herself to be filmed and photographed. Two months later, and after the suspect had left the country, police laid charges and said they would arrest him if he ever returned to Canada.

We recognize that police have a difficult job to do. Those challenges deserve our understanding. But their management of this investigation causes serious concern. First, the three-month lag in the investigation left Morin in fear, may have put other women at risk and allowed the suspect to escape potential criminal sanction.

Second, the episode suggests that police are potentially deeply misinformed about sexual violence. Their initial conclusion of “misunderstanding” must have been painful for Morin to hear. If a suspect’s claimed misunderstanding is all it takes, then few charges will be laid. Finally, it ought not to have been necessary for Morin to put her privacy and safety at risk by publicly identifying herself to persuade police to take her seriously.

Regrettably, Morin’s case seems not to be an anomaly. In 2015, the university’s Holly Johnson published a study on Ottawa women’s experience with police. To their great credit, it was the Ottawa police that commissioned the study, to find ways of improving their practices.

Johnson concluded that only 19 per cent of those who had gone to police about sexual assault saw charges laid. Women made such comments as “I felt like I was a suspect being interviewed. I was told I would be charged if I was found to be lying” and “He asked me why I didn’t scream or fight more, and didn’t seem to believe me.”

Furthermore, Johnson found that in the period between 2009 and 2013, fully 38 per cent of women’s complaints of sexual assault were determined to be “unfounded.” In other words, four of every 10 women who reported were told that police did not believe a crime had occurred.

Again to their credit, recent changes made by police have cut that rate by almost half, to 21 per cent. Nonetheless, Morin sadly found herself among the one in five women Ottawa police turn away when they report sexual violence.

Police elsewhere have addressed similar concerns with innovative methods supported by women themselves.

In Philadelphia, for example, a model was adopted 14 years ago that involves activists from the violence-against-women movement reviewing police decisions on these files, and working in equal partnership with police to correct investigations that have gone off the rails.

This model has received the endorsement of both frontline women’s groups and Philadelphia police, and has led to countless successful re-investigations, an increased charge rate, interventions for serial predators and enhanced confidence for women in reporting sexual violence.

Morin’s case shows the need for change here in Ottawa. We commend the Philadelphia model to the Ottawa Police Service. We believe it would improve the situation for our students and for all victims of male sexual violence.

As we work towards strengthening the university’s response to allegations of sexual violence on campus, we hope the criminal justice system in Ottawa will also provide responses that are respectful, responsive and effective.

Elizabeth Sheehy is a professor in the University of Ottawa’s faculty of law and was a member of the task force on respect and equality. Allan Rock is president of the University of Ottawa, and former minister of justice and attorney general of Canada.