In the VACR presentation, Sunny Marriner explained that out of 100 percent of sexual assaults, only 5 percent are reported to police, and the attrition keeps falling to just .25 percent of all assaults ending in a conviction.

Police board votes for a review of sexual assault cases

Given extremely low conviction rates, advocate says checking casework for problems should be government’s job.

The bulk of the Halifax Board of Police Commissioners meeting on Monday, June 20, was devoted to a presentation from Sunny Marriner, who joined the Zoom meeting shortly after it began. Marriner has been helping and advocating for survivors of sexual assault for 25 years, and appeared before the police board to talk about “Violence Against Women Advocate Case Review: An Emerging Best Practice in Sexual Assault Investigations,” or VACR.

In Marriner’s presentation on VACR, she noted that Robyn Doolittle’s groundbreaking Unfounded report from 2017 popularized the statistic that one in five complaints of sexual assault is determined to be unfounded by police. (And that's when 95 percent of assaults aren't even reported to police.) What has gotten less attention is for the four Canadian sexual assault cases out of 100 that move along the legal system, only 0.25 percent result in a conviction.

Marriner wants Halifax to let her organization review sexual assault cases. If a case doesn’t lead to a charge, her organization will review it to see if there are any issues with the case. Right now, if a case doesn’t go to trial but should have, the onus is on the victim to bring that to light. Marriner says the job of systematically reviewing the police’s casework is the government’s job, not the victims’. Her VACR program is federally funded and has been set up in five provinces (Alberta, New Brunswick, Ontario, PEI, and Saskatchewan).

After the presentation, Commissioner Harry Critchley put forward a motion to direct the Halifax Regional Police chief Dan Kinsella to enter into discussions with Marriner’s program. City lawyer Marty Ward responded by saying the commission “can’t do that” because it “directs” the chief. Ward says it’s better to soften the language of Critchley’s motion and make it a recommendation instead of a direction. Kinsella agrees with Ward’s assessment.

Commissioner Harry Critchley, who is also a lawyer, disagrees with Ward's interpretation of the Police Act in large part because section 55 of the Police Act reads: (1) The function of a board is to provide (b) the administrative direction, organization and policy required to maintain an adequate, effective and efficient police department. In 2021 city lawyers said there could be “a perception of conflict of interest,” if they represented both the board and the city. In other words, city lawyers might side with the police instead of the commissioners. Even if that advice is completely grounded in law, it could be perceived (as it could be today) as the city backing police over their oversight body.

Kinsella, for his part, says he’s worked with Marriner before, and her work adds “great value” and “transparency to build public trust and confidence.” RCMP inspector Jeremie Landry, the RCMP’s acting chief officer in HRM, says ditto.

After complaints from commissioners (and city councillors) Becky Kent and Lisa Blackburn that Critchley's motion was premature and should be re-worked or removed (respectively), Critchley decided to amend the motion to soften the language and it passed. Passing this meeting means Smith has now been directed to recommend Kinsella and Marriner open a dialogue about implementing VACR in Halifax.

After an hour in-camera, the board came back and made public its in-camera decision to get an independent legal opinion about whether or not it could investigate police actions of August 18. The board can investigate parts, but not all of it. Specifically, the board can’t investigate individual officer conduct. Commissioners passed a motion to give themselves the authority to start to investigate what they can; more details should be available at the next meeting.

In other Board of Police Commissioners business Monday, Blackburn put forward a motion to strike a working group that aims to duplicate a lot of the work done in the initial Defunding the Police: Defining the Way Forward for HRM report. Kent chimed in to make sure it was clear that in passing this motion to make the working group, the board didn’t endorse the recommendations of the report. The motion to make a working group passed.

Kinsella gave an update on the HRP’s ongoing policy refresh. He explained that policies need to be simple, standardized, comprehensive and robust. Kinsella also said a policy manual needs to be a living document, so policies can be changed and reviewed every three-to-five years in order to better respond to audits and legislative changes. The process is ongoing, and the first policies that have been reviewed will be released shortly. Kinsella says the launch will be in the fall of a searchable database.

The Wortley Report tracking document update on the agenda was deferred, because BOPC chair/city councillor Lindell Smith doesn’t think the city’s method of collecting informationfrom the city’s two police forces is good enough. Commissioner Carol McDougall pointed out that the document no longer gives the information the BOPC wants. The whole thing should be revamped, she says.

The commissioners also passed their meeting schedule until December 2022, which changed meetings to Wednesdays and changed the time to 4:30pm (subject to further change) for October and December meetings, in order to engage the public better. The board also appointed Blackburn to the Nova Scotia Association of Police Governance Board of Directors and renewed its membership fee of $900. And commissioner Yemi Akindoju was chosen to serve as the commission’s nominee to the Canadian Association of Police Governance Board of directors.

About The Author

Matt Stickland

Matt spent 10 years in the Navy where he deployed to Libya with HMCS Charlottetown and then became a submariner until ‘retiring’ in 2018. In 2019 he completed his Bachelor of Journalism from the University of King’s College. Matt is an almost award winning opinion writer.

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