Convictions remain rare for police accused of sexual assault

The Ontario Special Investigations Unit investigates few cases of sexual assault by police, and fewer result in a conviction. Credit: Shutterstock

In recent years, social movements from #MeToo to Black Lives Matter have raised awareness about sexual violence, police brutality, and systemic racism.

Police-involved sexual assault, sexual violence committed by police officers, sits at the intersection of these two major political movements. Our research suggests that sexual violence by police is more common than many might think.

In November 2022, a Oneida First Nation woman filed a $6 million lawsuit against the London Police Service in Ontario, alleging their negligent handling of her sexual assault report. The lawsuit claims that three police officers sexually abused the woman for years starting at the age of 12. She says that despite making reports to the police force and to the Ontario Special Investigations Unit (SIU), a police oversight agency, virtually nothing was done. .

Failing to fully investigate reports of police-involved sexual assault can have a chilling effect on what is already the most under-reported violent crime in Canada. It also erodes public confidence in police accountability and in the police themselves, by sending the message that police officers are above the law.

What is the IUS?

As the civilian police oversight agency, the SIU investigates when a police encounter with members of the public results in serious injury, death, the discharge of a firearm, or sexual assault allegations against officers. The SIU does not employ active police officers and has the power to bring criminal charges against most Ontario police officers.

In our recent article, we tracked the results of 689 sexual assault reports filed with the SIU between 2005 and 2020. We found that the vast majority of sexual assault reports have no significant consequences for the police officers involved.

Police Involved Sexual Assault

As with other forms of sexual violence, victims of police-involved sexual assaults are predominantly women, and we found that the average complainant is 32 years old.

Although the SIU didn’t begin releasing race-based data until June 2020, we do know that Black and Indigenous people are disproportionately victims of police brutality, a finding that likely extends to sexual violence.

All of the police officers who were accused of sexual assault were men. And compared to other forms of criminal conduct, perpetrators of sexual assault had more years on the job, and many held the rank of sergeant or higher.

We also found that accused police officers were slightly more likely to have committed a sexual assault while on duty.

What happens after a report is made?

Between 2017 and 2020, nearly 40% of all sexual assault reports filed with the SIU were cancelled. This means that the agency decided not to launch a full investigation into the complaint.

According to SIU policy, this happens either because the incident falls outside of their jurisdiction or because they determine that there is “clearly nothing to investigate.”

During the same period, the unsubstantiated rate of sexual assault reported to Ontario police forces was 10.5%. This means that reports of sexual assault made to the SIU are much less likely to get a full investigation.

Canadian police will classify an incident as unfounded when “it is determined through police investigation that the reported offense did not occur or was attempted.”

For reports that received a full investigation, 86.3% did not result in the filing of charges. Over the 15-year period of our study, only 7.4% of investigated sexual assault allegations resulted in charges.

What happens to the accused officers?

Conviction rates in Canada are around 50-60%. And just over half of sexual assault trials result in a conviction.

While most people plead guilty when charged with criminal offenses, according to our study, only 16% of charged officers pleaded guilty. Additionally, less than 13% were found guilty after trial by judge or jury, indicating a very low conviction rate for officers.

To put it in the starkest terms, our study found that only 1.59% of the reports investigated by the SIU resulted in a conviction and sentence.

Why is it so difficult to investigate?

Police officers have immense powers. Their work is generally carried out with minimal supervision, out of public view, and involves contact with vulnerable populations. It is these conditions that help facilitate and conceal sexual violence committed by police officers.

These are very challenging cases for the justice system. Like many sexual assault cases, evidence is often lacking and cases hinge on the credibility of the complainant vis-à-vis the accused. Police officers have advantages in credibility assessments and benefit from their expert knowledge of the justice system.

There is a lot of room for improvement in how we respond to police-involved sexual violence. Allegations of sexual assault made against police officers are less likely to receive a full investigation, be charged and result in a conviction, creating the perception that officers do not always face significant consequences when accused of sexual assault .

People considering reporting police-involved sexual violence may not have confidence in the system’s ability to investigate and hold officers accountable.

Effective police oversight is based on public trust. Given the barriers to reporting and investigating sexual violence committed by police officers, it is vital to maintain public confidence in police oversight.

Police cannot be held accountable without an informed public. By shedding light on these cases, we hope our research will help us better understand how the policing system works so we can better advocate for change.

Provided by The Conversation

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.The conversation

Citation: Convictions Remain Rare for Police Accused of Sexual Assault (December 8, 2022) Accessed December 8, 2022 at sexual.html

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