In the wake of its 20-month investigation into how police handle sexual-assault cases, The Globe and Mail developed a data app to track and monitor the actions of police across the country. Too often, investigative projects prompt promises of change, which then quickly fade as the story leaves the headlines. This app holds police services accountable for the steps they’ve pledged to take in response to The Globe’s story.“What is your police service doing about sexual assault?” allows readers to see how their police service responded to The Globe’s Unfounded investigation, and how they compare to the national trends. In February 2017, The Globe published its original Unfounded investigation. The Globe found that police were dismissing one in five sexual-assault reports as “unfounded,” a term used by police to indicate that the investigating officer does not believe a crime was attempted or occured. Once a case is dropped as unfounded it is no longer considered a valid allegation and, before The Globe’s project, it would not be reported to Statistics Canada, essentially scrubbing it from public record.After the investigation was published, many police services across the country said they would conduct reviews of sexual-assault cases. Reporter Robyn Doolittle noticed that each of the reviews being promised by police services varied dramatically in its nature, scope and goals. In order to capture a clear picture of the scale of police action across Canada, The Globe developed an 18-question survey for 177 police services. The survey results showed that at least 100 police services had launched reviews of previously closed cases, and that every year, thousands of sexual assaults reported to Canadian police were being wrongly dismissed as baseless. The survey results were presented nationally on the overview page of the app and each police service’s results were presented on profile pages that could be accessed either in a persistent search bar or in direct links from the overview page.As part of the original Unfounded investigation, Doolittle found two concrete ways that police could improve their handling of sexual-assault cases: Implement case reviews that follow the Philadelphia model — where advocates are given full access to police files to look for signs of bias and investigative missteps — and conduct trauma-informed training to help police understand how the brain responds to trauma and how that would affect an interviewee’s behaviour.The survey found that at least half of Canadians live in a community where the police service is doing, planning or considering one or both of these new practices. Those police services are highlighted on the overview page with direct links to their profiles, which give a summary of the main findings along with in-depth details and data from the original investigation.In this way, Canadians across the country can hold their police service accountable and see what steps they are taking to improve.
What makes this project innovative?
The best investigative projects strive to expose injustice and prompt change in government and policy. But publishing is only the beginning of the battle to make concrete change, and too often news outlets move on before the job is done. With Unfounded, The Globe and Mail was determined to stick with the story to ensure that the police services who commited to reforms in the wake of the series made good on their promises.Unfounded revealed that police were disproportionately dismissing sexual-assault cases as baseless compared with physical assault cases, that these investigations are routinely not treated as seriously as other crimes, despite the fact that sexual assault is among the most serious crime in the Criminal Code, second only to murder; and that some officers have a poor understanding of consent law and how trauma can impact a victim's behaviour. In response to the series, dozens of police services vowed to audit previously closed unfounded cases, as well as improve training and oversight. But the only way to capture a true scope of the response was to go back to every single police service and follow-up. Beginning in May 2017, the Globe distributed surveys to all 177 Canadian police services, then spent months circling back to each individual department to gather as many responses as possible. In the end, we collected data from 89 police services and were able to track down public information for roughly another dozen. We believe it is the first time that a news outlet has conducted this type of national review.In addition to allowing readers to hold their own police services accountable for their commitments in reforming their approach to sexual-assault cases, this follow-up project sent a powerful message: The Globe is going to stick with this story until the job is done.
What was the impact of your project? How did you measure it?
In the wake of Unfounded, Canada's prime minister, public safety minister and justice minister all called for change, and police services responded, saying they would do better, but the nature of the reforms seemed to vary dramatically between services. Until The Globe published the results of its survey project, readers were in the dark in terms of what concrete changes police were undertaking. The Globe's project revealed that at least 37,272 previously closed sexual assault files were being audited, and that about half of those had been dismissed as unfounded. Of the unfounded cases, around a third had been improperly dropped as baseless. Hundreds of sexual-assault cases have been reopened as a result of The Globe’s reporting.The survey showed that half of the country is now being policed by a service that plans to incorporate new specialized sexual assault training that takes a trauma-informed approach. Half of the country is being policed by a service that is actively working on adopting the so-called Philadelphia Model of case review.By publishing this data, The Globe armed local elected officials and activists with the power to hold their own police services to account. The tide has turned and exposing just how many police services are adopting these measures – which two years ago would have been revolutionary – increases pressure on the others to get with the times.The analytics showed that the lookup tool had broad national reach. Police service profiles from every province were viewed, with a mix of large cities and small municipalities. The profile for the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, which polices eight of ten provinces, three territories and over 100 municipalities that do not have their own police services, was the most viewed. This implies that there was broad national interest in our survey data.
Source and methodology
The 177 police services identified for the survey came from a list of what is known as police respondent populations” (PRPs), which we obtained from the Canadian Centre for Justice Statistics, a division of Statistics Canada. We sent the survey to the services on the 2015 list, which was the most up to date at the time. There are more than 1,100 police jurisdictions in Canada. Each municipal police service is responsible for one. The remainders are divided between the RCMP, the Ontario Provincial Police, the Sûreté du Québec and the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary. We sent only one survey to each of the aforementioned police services and they responded from the perspective of the organization as a whole rather than hundreds of times relating to each of their jurisdictions.We sent the surveys out in May, 2017. Over the next four months, we circled back to each non-responsive police service a minimum of three times to ensure that the service was aware of the survey.The survey was automated and each police service was provided with a unique user login and password. Some police services had trouble accessing the document, possibly due to firewalls on their networks. In these cases, we emailed the service a PDF version. Some replied using the PDF, others responded in a word document and others in the body of an email. In these cases, The Globe transferred these answers into the automated survey. Whenever a police service did not physically type out their own answers, a Globe proofreader verified the completed survey against the original.We tried to keep the questions to a multiple-choice format, so that we would be able to easily compare services. We also provided space, when appropriate, for "other" options. The final question on the survey was an open-ended one: "Is there anything else that you would like to add to help us better understand your police service's approach to handling sexual assault cases?" We have included the service's full answer to this question in each profile. Each profile also contains a "Notes" section, where The Globe kept a record of unique issues that arose pertaining to that service. For example, when relevant we offered a survey in both English and French. For police services that replied in French, we noted that it has been translated. In this section, we also included any additional comments made by the given police service.Ultimately, about half of the country's services responded to our survey. However, in some instances, by tracking police reviews through their respective local media, The Globe was able to complete at least some information on the document. In these instances, we used the media reports conservatively and only pulled the most basic information. We have noted each profile where information was collected in this way. In other cases, police services that completed reviews prepared a report on their findings for their local police services board. The Globe was able to obtain some of these reports and, again, complete some parts of the survey. These profiles are also noted. Finally, in the course of circling back to each police service to check on the status of a survey, some police services offered to speak with The Globe via phone about the survey content. In other cases, a police service declined to complete the document, but offered a formal interview. In the course of that interview, The Globe asked questions that were also posed by the survey. These profiles are also noted appropriately.Before publication, The Globe emailed all 177 police services a copy of their survey information to see if they wished to make any changes or if they spotted any errors. Dozens made changes. A number of police services that initially did not participate decided to complete the survey. The Globe accommodated each request but after two weeks had to set a firm cut-off date for changes. At this point, the survey was sent out again for a final viewing. Only overt errors could be changed.The Globe conducted the analysis using statistical software that allowed us to query the data in repeatable and reproducible form. As with the original Unfounded series, our analysis was verified by a data scientist who used a parallel process and reached the same results for each of our data queries.
Robyn Doolittle, Michael Pereira, Jeremy Agius, Shengqing Wu