S1-Episode 6: Building privacy and transparency into sexual assault investigations

Jul 20 2021

In Canada, it is estimated that only about 5% of sexual assaults are ever reported to police. Of those, the majority are closed without any charges being laid. In this episode, the commissioner speaks with women’s justice advocate Sunny Marriner and IPC legal counsel Stephen McCammon about an innovative approach that embeds community experts into the investigative process to enhance transparency of police decisions, while protecting the privacy of complainants.

Patricia Kosseim:

Hello, I’m Patricia Kosseim, Ontario’s Information and Privacy Commissioner and you’re listening to Info Matters, a podcast about people, privacy, and access to information. We dive into conversations with people from all walks of life and hear real stories about the access and privacy issues that matter most to them.

Hello, listeners, welcome to another episode of Info Matters. Today, we’ll be talking about issues of sexual violence that may be distressing for some listeners. In recent years, media coverage of high-profile sexual abuse allegations have led to some dramatic court cases. While some of the most infamous examples involve movie stars and film directors, this is not the stuff of Hollywood. It is very much real.

These notorious cases have led to a greater awareness of this very serious issue, and have encouraged women from around the world to begin sharing their experiences of sexual violence on social media through the #MeToo. But unfortunately, many sexual violence cases still go unreported. In Canada, it’s estimated that only about one in 20 sexual assaults are ever reported to police. And of those that are reported, four in five, or 80%, are closed and filed away without any charges being laid.

This surprising percentage of unfounded cases sees the attention of victim advocates, those who work tirelessly to support survivors of sexual violence. It’s fueled public concerns about transparency and accountability of police decision-making processes and how survivors of sexual violence experienced the criminal justice system as a whole.

Maintaining trust between police services and the communities they serve matters. It really matters. Trust is critical to maintaining public safety and effective policing. That trust is built on transparency and confidence that the actions of police are fair, well-informed, and reflect community values, all the while being respectful of the privacy rights and dignity of the victims.

Advocates in Canada have long called for changes in how police investigate sexual violence cases, seeking for a more collaborative approach. One that better support survivors, respects their privacy and dignity, and includes checks and balances to weed out potential bias, misinformation, or systemic barriers in the investigative process.

My guests for this episode are the architects of an innovative approach to the review of sexual violence cases in Ontario, one that brings together community partners and police for a sober second look at these unfounded case files. Sunny Marriner is project lead of the Violence Against Women Advocate Case Review at the Improving Institutional Accountability Project, an initiative funded by the government of Canada. She’s the former executive director of the Ottawa Rape Crisis Centre and has been an advocate for survivors of sexual violence for over 25 years.

Stephen McCammon is a legal counsel at my office. He provides legal advice on issues relating to privacy, transparency, and accountability, with a special focus on how these issues intersect with law enforcement and fundamental rights. Sunny and Stephen, welcome to the show.

Sunny Marriner:

Thank you.

PK:

Sunny, let me start with you. I’d like to know a little bit more about your background and how you got involved in your advocacy work on behalf of victims of sexual violence.

SMarriner:

Sure. So in the late-nineties, I decided that I wanted to work directly supporting survivors of sexual assault as an independent advocate as part of the rape crisis centre movement. We have a broad movement across the country of independent rape crisis centres. They’re centres that are started for survivors by survivors and exist independently of criminal justice systems, of hospitals, of other institutionally-based services.

So our function is fully 100% to work for that survivor. She’s my boss. That person is the person that I’m there to empower and support. And so when I went to do that work and to begin that work in the end of the nineties, I began working primarily with marginalized and criminalized young women, and had an opportunity to see a lot of their interactions with the criminal justice system and that includes police reporting.

PK:

So, I rhymed off a few statistics in my introduction, but of course you’re the expert and I’m hoping that you can elaborate a little bit on the extent of the problem that we’re facing in Ontario and in Canada today.

SMarriner:

Well, absolutely. Sexual assault is actually one of the violent crimes with the lowest reporting rates. And that’s not just true in Canada, but that’s true worldwide. Unfortunately, in Canada, we’ve seen reporting hover right about 10% of all sexual assaults are reported to police and it stayed that way for probably about 20 years. And then it actually dipped down lower than that to 5% of all sexual assaults being reported to police as of the 2014 General Social Survey statistics.

So that means that 95% of all sexual assaults are never accessing the criminal justice system at all. And that 5% that are, we certainly haven’t had many mechanisms to really find out what’s happening to them once they arrive there.

PK:

So I imagine those that do go forward, it’s only a smaller proportion of those in which charges are laid. And then, of course, an even smaller proportion of those that result in conviction. Is that the kind of funnel approach that you’ve been seeing?

SMarriner:

Absolutely is what we call case attrition and this is one of the things that actually gave rise to why we looked into creating the violence against women case review model. Because sexual violence cases – we all tend to know that they have very low reporting rates – what I think the average citizen doesn’t know is that even of those cases that are reported to police, fully four out of five don’t proceed.

So they may stop because they are deemed to have insignificant evidence or they may stop because they are deemed unfounded, meaning that the investigators believe that no crime occurred or was attempted. They may stop for a number of reasons, but the ultimate outcome means that of five survivors, only one of those is going to be able to walk through the front door of the criminal justice system through seeing their case resulted in charges.

PK:

So what was your aha moment when you realized that this was a big social problem that you wanted to devote your career, your life to addressing?

SMarriner:

That actually through the experiences of several young women that I was doing support and advocacy work with. One case, in particular, I learned of a young woman who was 12 years old and had been impregnated by her abuser and it was reported to the police and the police did not arrest that abuser and they deemed the case unfounded. This was very early on into my work doing advocacy and what I couldn’t understand was how it could be possible that that case could have been closed that way.

And it didn’t appear that anybody was responsible for doing any oversight or that anybody even knew that it had happened. We have no independent mechanism to actually see what’s happening with the reporting of these cases, which means that what we’ve done is we’ve “responsiblized” survivors to ensure that public processes and systems are working for all of us. And they’re in fact that people that should be at least required to do that in the moment that they’re reporting to police.

So that definitely sparked a moment of realizing that we were failing and that we needed to have something in place to ensure that when survivors are going forward jacks as the criminal justice system, somebody’s keeping an eye on, and taking a look at what happens when they get there, somebody other than themselves.

PK:

So you talked about attrition rates, what are some of the causes of that attrition rate? What seems to be the hiccup? Is it a credibility issue? Are victims of sexual violence not being believed when they come forward? Are there biases or myths that impact or affect their credibility in the eyes of police? What’s the root causes of some of these alarming attrition rates?

SMarriner:

Well, I would say that policing is no different than the broader society that it occurs within. And so we all know that we have long functioned in a society that has tacitly believed that survivors must in some way be at fault for violence they experienced. So either it was something they were wearing or they were spending time with somebody that they “should not have.”

These are things that we now have labels for in terms of talking about victim blaming, but we didn’t use to even have that language. It was just taken as a given that there were behaviors of survivors that either meant that they actually did want to consent to sexual activity or that, at the very least, they didn’t take adequate steps to avoid it.

So these are packed into what we would term, largely, gender bias around the world. And when we looked at studies of what’s happening with sexual assault survivors, when they try to access systems – and it’s not just policing, systems like hospitals, systems like large scale public institutions – the impacts of that gender bias and the sexual assault or rape myths that come with it have had the largest impact on why survivors can’t adequately be served in those systems.

Sometimes there’s also other types of reasons that could be creating barriers and that’s part of what we’re trying to look at. Is it always gender bias? Are there other kinds of barriers that we need to talk about? And by taking a systematic look at the cases, that’s part of what we hope to achieve to have answers for.

It’s actually interesting that the way that we have understood sexual assault and sexual violence historically, is pretty much diametrically standing on its head, the opposite of how sexual assault really does occur in society. So, we’ve often had what we would call “stranger myths.” So the idea that all sexual assaults are committed by strangers who leap out in the dark, from behind the bushes, who do not know the survivors they assault. This is the stranger myth of sexual assault.

The realities, in fact, are that the vast majority of people who experienced sexual violence experience it at the hands of somebody they know, and many of them at the hands of somebody they know very, very well. The majority of survivors of sexual violence do not immediately disclose that they’ve experienced that. Many survivors, it takes years before they tell anybody. Survivors very regularly maintain contact with people who have committed assaults against them.

Part of that is about trying to make things normal again. So, something horrible has happened and you’re trying to actually make yourself feel like everything is normal again and the way that you do that is to try to fix that situation. To talk to the person like things are normal. To go to work like things are normal. To go to school like things are normal. To maintain all of those things in the way that they were before the assault occurred. This is all very understandable and well-known response to sexual assault, but in our societies and our communities, we’ve actually believed that it’s exactly the opposite.

PK:

So, talk about your project a little bit, the Violence Against Women Advocate Case Review Project. I understand that it started some years ago and the objective was to find a way of shedding an external spotlight on this process to weed out some of these biases or these assumptions being made. Talk to us a little bit about how the project got started and how it got off the ground.

SMarriner:

So, really, soon after I started working directly with survivors whose cases were not progressing in the criminal justice system, that launched probably a decade-long search for practices people were using that were working better than what we had. So, you know, a first question we like to ask ourselves is, is there anywhere that this is actually working? Is there anywhere that’s applying something that’s fixed the issue?

And, so, advocates have actually done a lot of different things over the years to try to address the issues of case attrition and systemic obstacles and part of my job for about 10 years was taking a look at what those things were and if they had not succeeded, why had they not succeeded? And then trying to ensure that anything that we looked for didn’t rebuild those same problems.

So that, of course, you can imagine, took us through a lot of years of looking at training initiatives and response teams and all kinds of different things that have been done around the world. And it wasn’t until, I think, 2011 that I stumbled on what is now more broadly known as the Philadelphia Model. But what it was, was violence against women advocates in the United States who were actually coming in and reviewing police cases and police decisions, and then contributing their feedback, their concerns, their recommendations, their trauma-informed lens to the police officers that had investigated them.

That was an incredible feat. It had not been done as far as I knew anywhere else in the world. And that certainly sparked our interest about whether or not this was something that we could try to implement in Canada and whether or not it would be effective.

PK:

So, I understand the start was a little rocky at the beginning. It didn’t start off too smoothly at first. What were some of the obstacles you were facing when you were floating this idea of importing the Philadelphia Model to Ontario?

SMarriner:

Well, the first thing was that people were concerned about drawing anything from a United States model. And that’s, I think, a very fair concern. We’re not the United States, Canada has a different environment. And, so, our work began with developing a uniquely Canadian iteration, which we call VACR. So moving away from some of those U.S.-specific elements of the U.S. model and actually making it a Canadianized version.

So it was kind of a first piece. But definitely one of the things that we heard a lot at the beginning was that you could never allow anyone who wasn’t a police officer to see any of this work because of privacy reasons. And, so, of course, that was very intriguing for us because the history of the frontline sexual assault centre is one that is steeped and enshrined rind in confidentiality as a core value of our centres. Most of our centres started with mottos of no records, no time, for no reason, just to protect people’s confidentiality.

So it seemed odd to me that something could stand as such a barrier to moving forward rather than something that we could use for the protection of that survivor. I do think as well, to be very candid about it, this is unheard of. It’s unheard of for outside advocates to suggest that they would review police work. It’s not really been done anywhere in the world to the extent that it’s being done in Canada now. And I think people really needed a lot of assurances that this had been well-thought through, that it was something that could be effective, and something that could be supported by both survivors and by the frontline advocates that are working on their behalf.

PK:

It’s thanks, in no small measure, to your incredible leadership, you and many of your colleagues and other stakeholders. And because all of this proceeded my arrival at the IPC, I’m a little curious to know how did you come about this working relationship with the IPC? What made you reach out to the IPC and meet Stephen, ultimately, which forged, I think, a great partnership along with many others that managed to build this amazing model here in Ontario and ultimately in Canada?

SMarriner:

Initially, we were trying to, and when I say we, I mean advocates that work in frontline sexual assault and violence against women, we were talking about the model and what we would hope to develop. And the police that we were speaking to were frequently, as I said, they were saying the privacy commissioners won’t allow us to do this. And we weren’t actually having our own direct conversations with the privacy commissioners at that time. So we weren’t having an opportunity to explain what we were attempting to do, how it was intended to support and protect survivors and work on their behalf.

And, so, we took that opportunity to say, well, you know what? We really need to get on the phone and talk to one another and explain what the value is, why the methodology is set up the way it is, why do we need, for example, to see all of the information in a case. And that led us to hopping on a phone call with Stephen. Because of the heft and the weight that the privacy commission had in this conversation, I think we realized very quickly that the privacy commission was also about trying to figure out ways to make best practices work, and transparency work, while also protecting people. And I think that’s something that even I didn’t know and I didn’t realize how important that link was going to be.

PK:

Wow, great story. I want to get into a little bit about the case review process and how it works. Give me background on the appointment of these case reviewers. Are they independent? How often do these case reviews occur? And ultimately, what happens when case reviewers disagree with police decisions not to lay charges?

SMarriner:

So, we review cases quarterly. And the reason we do that is our mandate is to look at every case that was not cleared through a charge. Meaning, the case has been investigated, a police officer has made a decision about whether or not they can lay a charge in that case and they have said they cannot. The reason why they have said they cannot does not matter from a case review perspective. We want to look at all of those different reasons.

And we do that quarterly to try to make sure that if I’m reviewing, I’m seeing that case no more than three months after the police cleared it. Because if you’re the survivor and you’re told your case isn’t moving forward, that’s actually causing you harm every day that you have to live with that feeling that there’s nobody supporting you within the criminal justice system.

It’s really important that we look at absolutely everything that the officer looked at when they made their decision. Because if I’m not seeing the same things that the officer saw, then I’m not going to come to an informed perspective on that case. I might say, “you didn’t do this,” and the officer might say, “yes I did it, it’s just you didn’t see it.” And who we choose to do this, this is kind of the core piece of case review that is so different than other types of case reviews in the past.

Case review is not a new concept. We’ve had case reviews where you’ll have crowns, you’ll have hospital personnel, you’ll have institutional partners who are part of the criminal justice system looking at a case. What we’ve done is we’ve actually, the people that we’ve involved in the case are frontline advocates who are independent of those services. So, what that means is that when I’m in my sexual assault centre during the day, not only am I talking to the 5% of survivors who do choose to report, I’m also talking to a cross-section of the 95% of survivors in my own community who are never reporting sexual violence. So, I’m bringing a huge lens of what sexual violence in the community looks like to that review.

So, to give kind of an example that might help to illustrate that. In sexual assault centres, very often we have crisis lines. We might repeatedly get calls on our crisis line about a perpetrator who has certain types of behaviors. Or about an address where, say a landlord is repeatedly sexually assaulting female renters in the building. We’ll have heard that, that doesn’t mean the police are aware of it. Because none of those people may have reported. But when we go and do a review and we see that address, now we bring the knowledge from the community and from survivors themselves to that process. We can’t add new investigative information, of course, but we can bring a lens of what we know exists in our community and use that in discussion with police to try to ensure they understand what that landscape looks like as well.

But your core question is what happens when we disagree? And one of the big things I say when I’m training police and advocates on how we do case review is disagreement does not equal disrespect. We can disagree with one another and still respect what one another do, still respect that we wear different hats, that we have different jobs, and that we won’t always see things the same way. And so I encourage advocates and police to get comfortable challenging one another’s perspectives. And sometimes that’s our biggest challenge, because we’re not very comfortable, sometimes, being challenged in our areas of expertise, very few of us are, and it can take a little time to feel like you’re getting valuable feedback from others around that.

So, we certainly work on trying to promote an environment where people can challenge one another, but ultimately, decision-making is left to police. I, as a reviewer, can look at a case and say I believe this case should be reopened. And I believe it should be reopened for this reason, and this reason, and this reason. If Stephen’s the investigator and he says, well, I disagree with you, well, now we’re going to debate it. But at the end of the day, the case reviewers, we’re not investigators and we have not been empowered to overrule police decisions.

PK:

So, Sunny, in terms of the results that you’ve seen come out of the experience you’ve had so far with this model, how have victims, the actual victims of sexual, violence responded to it? Do they feel any more supported knowing that there is this community review of their case that will take place every quarter?

SMarriner:

Certainly what many survivors have said to me and I’ve said to other reviewers is that it makes a big difference for them to know that somebody independent from outside the criminal justice system, but who also can be completely trusted with their information, is keeping an eye on what’s happening to them, and maybe available to pick up something and support their own voice about their own experience.

So not only is this survivor having an opportunity to say how they might’ve experienced reporting, but they might also have that independent advocate who’s also seeing it and who is legitimizing their experience. So I think a really important support to survivors that’s been created is that finally there is somebody non-institutional who’s looking at these cases and will raise a hue and cry, as they say, whether that survivor feels able and empowered to do so right now in their life or not.

PK:

And, in addition to individual victims, have you found that this model has helped improve transparency and accountability of police decisions more systemically? Is it actually helping root out some of the biases and barriers that you spoke of earlier?

SMarriner:

It’s such an interesting question. So, we’re now about five years in to our very first reviews. We began in Ontario, but we very quickly ended up moving to other provinces. So, the work that was done between the IPC and Ontario, myself, we then took that work out nationally across Canada. Which means that there’s a really wide variety of different experiences. One of the first quick wins that we’ve seen with case review is a vast improvement just in the basic documentation of the case.

One of the things that has surprised a lot of people across Canada about sexual assault investigations is that some of them are a couple of paragraphs long. There’s actually very, very scant investigation into some of these files or if there’s a lot of investigations, sometimes it’s never been written down, it’s never been formally documented. Nobody would ever be able to go back and take a look at what occurred. And this is a legal document that’s actually recording the only recording of what occurred in that investigation.

So, as part of case reviews, we need the files to be in a condition where you can understand what steps were taken, when they were taken, who they were taken by. Which will be critically important if those cases are ever reopened. And that one is actually one that’s worked out really well in the last couple of years. We’ve seen the quality of files vastly improving to a point where, not only can we now tell much more frequently what occurred in the case, but also, if we’re lucky, that also means that cases that move forward to the crown have a lower chance of being withdrawn or dismissed because of issues with the file or the record keeping or the documentation.

PK:

Have there been examples of cases or investigations that have been reopened as a result of your intervention and the broader perspective that you bring to the table?

SMarriner:

Well, one of the great things about our confidentiality agreements, now that I can’t tell you specifics that come out of our individual reviews through the privacy framework that we’ve created but what I can tell you because I work with teams all over the country is, absolutely, across Canada, different cases have come to different places as a result of reviews. And we certainly have seen some historical cases that have been looked at that have resulted in action today.

PK:

So while this model has certainly helped improve transparency, I could just imagine all the privacy concerns for the victims involved, particularly when such sensitive information about traumatic experiences they’ve had get shared with external case reviewers. God forbid, that this privacy hesitancy should drive down reporting even further. You mentioned earlier that case reviewers have to have access to all the same information police do in order to come to a reasoned judgment or assessment of the unfounded cases. So, that’s access to a lot of information, clearly.

So, Stephen, let me turn to you and ask you to tell us a little bit about the privacy components of the framework, to which you greatly contributed. What are some of the protections that are in place to respect the privacy and the dignity of victims through the process?

Stephen McCammon:

Happy to share on that, Commissioner. The privacy safeguards are built in from the structural level down to the operational level. First of all, the integrity of this program, which so relies on the expertise and the lens of a violence against women, advocates, and experts to be involved is leveraging, as Sunny indicated, the fact that the partner organizations who are going to work with police on this are themselves steeped in confidentiality practices and obligations.

Secondly, in partnering, they sign on to a memorandum of understanding that sets the ground rules for how the program will run. And that MOU, which we worked on very closely with Sunny and policing partners, takes care of privacy along the lines of the information life cycle, whatever information is at issue. And it’s very sensitive information in police files, particularly when we’re talking about police investigative files on cases involving sexual violence.

So, all of that has to be taken into account and that the MOU and the confidentiality undertakings that are required of the individual case reviewers all dictate that because the reviewers need access to the full file in order to perform their essential function, they have to respect the confidentiality of that information. They can’t take it elsewhere. They, in fact, don’t have the ability to take the information outside of police facilities or police systems.

And they’re going to be subject to, those reviewers are going to be subject to some background checks before they sit in the chair. When reviewers come to do their work, the first thing that going to happen is that they’re going to have a quick look at the files to see if there are any potential conflicts of interest associated with any one particular file and if the reviewer identifies a conflict of interest, they’ll step away from looking at that file.

And then, at the end of the day, the reviewers document their observations and their recommendations and hand those over to the police within the police structure of custody and control of those records. So that process is designed to bring those critical lenses inside the police set up, get them to do their work inside that set up, and then leave it all behind.

PK:

So, Stephen, understanding that a lot of this information is highly confidential and there are protections in place, is there any public information, at all, that gets reported out about the process and lends transparency to the process but without compromising confidentiality?

SMcCammon:

It was critical during the development of this model to recognize that the trust and transparency requires that the reviewers are able to go back to their communities and share vital information with their communities. You can’t go in and do that work and never say it’s going well or not. You can’t go in and do that work and say, “No. No lessons to be learned, nothing to report back out to the community.” There has to be that ability for those independent sexual violence experts and community workers to be able to go back out and talk about that work in those general terms.

So, the privacy protection is keep it all tight in there with terms of the personal information, in terms of the identifying information, in terms of law enforcement information, but allow those reviewers to go back out into the communities and share some critical insights. And that transparency and accountability mechanism also, it’s almost like a safety valve that helps ensure that the privacy will be respected.

PK:

No doubt, part of a very carefully crafted privacy and accountability framework that I know you and others have significantly contributed to. Is all of this predicated on victim’s consent, Stephen? Where does the consent piece fit into this?

SMcCammon:

It’s a good question and certainly a question we thought long and hard about with Sunny. My own instinct and in other colleagues’ instincts was, of course, to think about consent right away, to best practice in general, in our privacy landscape and how could it not be something we’d think about in the area of sexual violence, consent of survivors. At the same time, we know there’s a set of rules in the public sector privacy legislation that applies to police and that set of rules permits the disclosure of personal information without consent.

And so given that it was so critical that this important project be effective, in order to be effective, not only do the reviewers have to have access to the full file in virtually all cases, but it’s also vital that they are able to review all the cases cleared other than by charge. Or, if the numbers are too large, a true random selection of those cases, there is no way really to do that on a consent basis. It’s going to be hard to reach some of the violence survivors.

And while some might at first being disinclined to share their information, I think that another piece of the transparency and accountability pieces that communities will know as and survivors as part of those communities will know and what information is being used for what purpose under what safeguards. And that, I think, lends itself to the premise that this program has been designed with full respect for survivors in mind, but consent would undermine the success of the program as a model.

PK:

I understand that from a legal perspective and certainly from the perspective of wanting to ensure accuracy in terms of the conclusions you draw from that, but what do women think about that, Sunny? From your perspective on the ground, how difficult was that to reassure victims that they’re still part of the process and that they’re still at the centre of all of this?

SMarriner:

It’s such an interesting question and an interesting space to think about, because, of course, our entire lives and everything that we do that has to do with sexual violence are all about consent. We probably say the word consent more in the course of a day than most people do in a lifetime. And so absolutely thinking about what would be the impacts of either requesting consent or not requesting consent. And we had to think about that really carefully. And there were definitely some areas where we realized that asking for individual consent on each and every case, in fact would be treating case review completely differently than anything else that we do in the sexual violence investigation.

So, there was ethical concerns, methodological concerns, and operational concerns. So to give an example, methodologically, who would be seeking the consent from the survivor? The only person that could do that would be the police officer at the outset of the interview, by telling the survivor, this case may be looked at as part as a review, et cetera, et cetera. Reviewers could not then guarantee that it’s a reliable review because the reviewers could not guarantee the survivors that they would all be asked. How would the reviewers know if the officers had indeed asked or offered the opportunity to every survivor? We had no way to methodologically be sure of that. And that was a question that survivors raised with us to great concern.

Another issue was in terms of the ethical concerns. When we go forward to report sexual violence, that decision is incredibly difficult. It can also be extremely anxiety-provoking, extremely triggering to be in that police station. At that time, when that person is being told about some bureaucratic or standard operating procedure that’s done for quality control, potentially months down the road, how much of that is that person actually able to absorb in that moment? And very often survivors have said, I don’t want somebody to be giving me all of this information. I came into here, I need to speak. So maybe if you can give me that information later, but don’t be doing that now.

So there was a very big concern of co-optation of the process. But I think the key component that’s most important about consent is that case reviews are not an external process where we take people’s private information and throw it out willy-nilly to the community. In fact, we don’t even use the word “external” most of the time. Because what’s actually happening is that subject matter experts have been invited in to the process of the investigative chain.

And finally, I’ll just say, from a survivor perspective, because of the level of concern about this, the first couple of years of doing this work, myself and a number of sexual assault centres across Ontario, started keeping track of the feedback we were receiving from survivors about review. How did they feel about it? How did they feel about the idea of somebody looking at their cases? And I can tell you that, then and now to this day, the thing that I hear more often than not is can you look at my case? Not, I don’t want somebody to see what happened to me, but I want somebody to look and I want somebody to look at something that happened 10 years ago.

PK:

And what about in terms of education of police? Is the fact of having reviewers, these embedded community reviewers, sort of looking over the shoulder of police and giving a sober second look or thought to some of their decisions, is that helping educate police and root out some of the systemic biases in the system that we talked about earlier?

SMarriner:

Well, I like to believe so. I think we’re early in the process. I think that’s the kind of thing that we can kind of take a temperature at about five years in, then take a temperature at around 10 years in, and try to get a sense of what is the impact this is actually having. I know that we certainly have… A review certainly have really strong impacts on individuals who are participating, but our goal is to have a systemic impact. So not just one individual at a time, but actually to structurally change the way that we understand oversight with sexual assault investigations.

If we’re being successful at all, I hope that we’re starting from a place of creating a harm reduction model where we’re actually addressing some of the pains of reporting that survivors have told us about. And then from there, ideally, also building our positive responses at the same time.

PK:

Fascinating. Thanks again to both of you for joining me on this episode of Info Matters. I’ve learned so much about how this approach to community-led case review can foster public trust and confidence in law enforcement investigations, all the while, helping to support survivors of sexual violence by respecting their privacy and dignity.

This is very important work you’re doing and it’s changing the way sexual violence cases are being investigated across Canada. And, ultimately, giving voice to those victims of sexual violence, and giving them confidence to report cases in the first place. You should be justifiably proud of this accomplishment. Your passion has moved mountains and on behalf of Ontarians, we thank you.

For listeners out there who want to learn more about our work on this and other access and privacy topics, you can visit our website at ipc.on.ca. You can also contact our office for assistance in general information about Ontario’s access and privacy laws.

Well, that’s it for today, folks. We hope you found this episode informative. Thank you for listening. And until next time.

I’m Patricia Kosseim, Ontario’s Information and Privacy Commissioner and this has been Info Matters. If you enjoyed the podcast, leave us a rating or review. If there’s an access or privacy topic you’d like us to explore on a future episode, we’d love to hear from you. Send us a tweet @IPCinfoprivacy, or email us at podcast@ipc.on.ca. Thanks for listening and please join us again for more conversations about people, privacy, and access to information. If it matters to you, it matters to me.

Sunny Marriner is project lead of the Violence Against Women Advocate Case Review for the Improving Institutional Accountability Project, an initiative funded by the Government of Canada. Stephen McCammon is a legal counsel at the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner of Ontario. He provides legal advice on issues relating to privacy, transparency, and accountability with a special focus on how these issues intersect with law enforcement and fundamental rights.

Please be advised: this episode discusses issues related to sexual violence that may be distressing to some listeners.

  • Trust as critical to maintaining public safety [2:00]
  • Low sexual violence reporting rates in Canada and around the world [4:50]
  • High rates of case attrition (cases that don’t result in a conviction) [6:00]
  • The need for an independent mechanism to review case files/outcomes [8:00]
  • Reasons behind high rates of case attrition [8:38]
  • Outdated views of sexual assault [10:33]
  • About the Violence Against Women Advocate Case Review Project [12:05]
  • The Philadelphia Model for case review [13:28]
  • Bringing a version of the Philadelphia Model to Ontario [14:08]
  • Forging a partnership with the IPC [16:20]
  • How the case review process works [18:05]
  • Viewing sexual violence cases through a community lens [19:55]
  • Challenging perspectives during case review [21:42]
  • Improvements as a result of case review [24:00]
  • Privacy safeguards in the case review framework [27:01]
  • Ensuring accountability, while maintaining confidentiality [30:00]
  • Disclosure of information and consent [31:42]
  • Inviting subject matter experts to participate in case review [36:16]
  • Survivors’ feedback on case review [36:44]
  • Expanding the model to other provinces and communities [37:29]

Resources:

Info Matters is a podcast about people, privacy, and access to information hosted by Patricia Kosseim, Information and Privacy Commissioner of Ontario. We dive into conversations with people from all walks of life and hear stories about the access and privacy issues that matter most to them.

If you enjoyed the podcast, leave us a rating or a review.

Have an access to information or privacy topic you want to learn more about? Interested in being a guest on the show? Send us a tweet @IPCinfoprivacy or email us at podcast@ipc.on.ca.

This post is also available in: French

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