B.C. victim calls sex assault investigation a 'slap in the face'; rare RCMP review underway
VANCOUVER - As Kelowna Mounties come under the scrutiny of a specialized unit of the RCMP, a woman whose sexual assault complaint was closed as "unfounded" is slamming the force for what she describes as a cold and cursory handling of her report.
According to data gathered by Statistics Canada, of the 82 people who reported sexual assaults to the Kelowna RCMP last year, 30 of their cases were deemed "unfounded" or unsubstantiated. That's 40 per cent of all cases, compared to B.C.'s provincial average in 2018 of just 15 per cent.
"They were quite condescending (to me) and it was really awkward, because they had no clue what they were doing," said Heather Friesen.
In her first public interview where she revealed her full name and identity, the Kelowna mother outlined the chilling details she relayed to investigators last year.
She said she was found naked and unconscious and retrieved by friends from a barricaded room at a spring break party more than three decades ago.
Friesen claims she was raped by several classmates, but despite giving names to investigators, she says they only made a couple of phone calls – including one to a man with the same name as one of her alleged attackers – before telling her the case was closed.
"I just feel the RCMP aren't doing their jobs, and however they label it, 'unfounded' to me is a slap in the face because it means they're not believing survivors. And they're not believing 40 per cent of survivors in Kelowna, which is appalling," she said.
Kelowna RCMP refused interview requests from CTV News Wednesday, saying simply that an analysis by a specialized unit of the RCMP is still underway. Instead, the detachment referred to a statement issued on Friday.
"We understand that there are many questions about the roots of these statistics, and we're taking immediate steps to get answers," said Cpl. Meghan Foster in the statement. "We are aware that people may find the number of unfounded sexual assault files unsettling, and we are committed to ensuring the public that we are accountable for our investigations."
A rare investigation of the detachment's 2018 and 2019 unfounded sexual assault cases is now underway by the RCMP's Sexual Assault Review Team, which was formed in the wake of an in-depth investigation into unfounded cases by the Globe and Mail.
A series of recommendations and an action plan were also announced by the force in 2017, which included a section on investigative accountability acknowledging:
"Classifying a sexual assault file as unfounded is accurate in some cases. However, stakeholders stressed that incorrectly classifying a file as unfounded negatively impacts public perceptions of how police investigators handle sexual assault reports, and could discourage victims from reporting these crimes to police. Victims may be at further risk if perpetrators are not pursued because a file is incorrectly closed, and perpetrators may be emboldened if they believe they are unlikely to get caught."
Evidence and the court process
Sexual assault investigations can be time-consuming and incredibly complicated, even when there's DNA evidence, because the accused can insist the sexual encounter was consensual.
"The challenge we have in putting a report forward to Crown is that police have to, themselves, come to the opinion not just, 'Did it happen, did it not happen?' but do we have the evidence that would support a conviction at trial? Is there a reasonable and probably likelihood of conviction in criminal court?" said Sandy Garossino, a former prosecutor.
She says with historic cases, it can be more difficult to gather evidence, but that it's not impossible to secure enough information and evidence to pursue criminal charges. But Garossino also points out that seeing their cases go before a judge isn't the only factor that can impact victims who come forward.
"The most important thing, short of that full accountability and a sentence that matches the severity of the offence, is that the complainants are taken seriously and that we, our institutions, understand their violation, understand that they have this terrible offence that has taken place against them and that we're on their side," said Garossino.
Mounties investigating Mounties
The RCMP is urging any complainants who feel their case wasn't investigated properly to request a review before their Sexual Assault Review Team finishes its analysis, which could take some time.
But Friesen said she doesn't have much confidence in the process.
"I don't believe the RCMP can investigate itself," she said, emphasizing how ill-prepared to deal with sexual assault complaints Mounties at the Kelowna detachment seemed to be when she spoke with them.
"I've had 32 years to reconcile my trauma and it was really difficult for me not to get angry with them, so I can't imagine being a fresh survivor and having to deal with them," said Friesen. "They do not understand sexual assault. They do not understand the language they use. They do not understand rape culture and how they contribute to it."