2017 sexual assault cases at their highest in five years – The London Free Press
The number of reported sexual assaults in London last year was the highest in five years — but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
The stark increase – about 40 per cent – could mean police and community members are working harder to ensure the safety of Londoners, experts say.
A recent report released by Statistics Canada shows that in 2017, London police reported 344 cases of sexual assault, a big jump from the 239 cases in the previous year.
The number of sexual violations against children also increased by about 50 per cent with 83 cases reported in 2017 compared to 55 the year before.
Const. Sandasha Bough, a spokesperson for London police, said in an e-mail that the increase in numbers could be due to “the public’s heightened awareness of and encouragement to report sexual assaults.”
“There has been a recent increase in media/public attention on the issues of sexual violence,” she said. “During 2017, the (police) worked closely with community partners to provide an improved response and more support for victims of sexual violence.”
She also noted that it is too early to determine if the increase in reported assaults is a trend.
London was among police forces across the country spurred to act following a Globe and Mail investigation last year that found a wide variation in the number of sexual assault cases deemed unfounded.
London police had one of Canada’s highest unfounded rates between the years of 2010 and 2016.
Unfounded is a term used by law enforcement for investigations that do not have reasonable grounds to lay a criminal charge, incidents where the victim does not want to proceed with the investigation or an allegation that is proven to be false.
In the wake of the report and in response to criticism levelled at the force, London police Chief John Pare issued a public apology and pledged to review the cases to learn how to better respond to sexual assault victims.
Kate Wiggins, executive director of Anova, and Jane McGregor, director of community programs at the London agency that provides counselling and shelter for women, said the organization saw a large uptick in calls to its crisis support line since last fall.
They credited movements such #metoo and Time’s Up, high-profile campaigns against sexual harassment and assault, with giving women the courage to come forward about sexual violence.
“I think it makes absolute sense,” Wiggins said. “There would be some degree, I’d imagine, of feeling that what you had experienced would be validated and believed in a way that hasn’t (before).”
Wiggins said last year, the agency received more than 10,000 phone calls, a significant increase from previous years.
Anova has been working with London police since January on a pilot project in which the agency — alongside other community members and organizations — review cases the police deemed as unfounded or cleared.
“We’re working with the staff sergeant of the sexual assault unit,” McGregor said. “We review anything that’s in the (case) occurrence and make recommendations.”
But both Wiggins and McGregor noted the increase in reports does not necessarily mean there’s an increase in sexual assaults in the city.
Previously — due to fears of being vilified by law enforcement — many women may have chosen not to report sexual violence, Wiggins said. These new cases that are being reported could be recent or could be the result of women coming forward about historical assaults, she said.
“There’s no statute of limitations,” McGregor noted. “Who knows what constitutes those numbers?”
McGregor said it’s a good sign that women are coming forward and that communities are finding ways to address sexual assault crimes with approaches that help women feel comfortable to do so.
“Police are open, they’re open to learning,” she said. “We all want the same thing. . .to assist folks who have been impacted by sexual violence.”
Irvin Waller, a criminology professor at the University of Ottawa, said that though the numbers in the Statistics Canada report are alarming, they should not be a cause for concern.
“I think it means that (police) were taking these reports a little more seriously,” Waller said. “Up to a point it’s a good thing to have more (sexual assaults) reported to the police and recorded by the police.”
Waller said the best way to move forward is for communities to work together to address these problems rather than just leave it to law enforcement. He said it’s not necessarily a “good ride” for victims of sexual assault to go through the justice system, and that a combined effort should be made to help them.
“They would be expecting different strategies from the police, universities, schools and a number of actions in the city,” Waller said. “It’s everyone (working) in a very planned and organized way where you’re very results oriented. . .you need to have real, measurable goals.”
But the work to address sexual violence doesn’t stop with the police. Wiggins and McGregor both said that the criminal justice system in general — including judges and lawyers — needs to learn how to approach cases like these with an understanding of trauma and how it manifests in people.
London police will continue to assess staffing to ensure any increases in reports of sexual assault can be handled, Bough said
“We continue to work with our community partners to ensure we are providing the best service possible.”
McGregor and Wiggins said there are signs of movement when it comes to addressing sexual violence, and that could mean great things for victims, but only future statistics and reports will be able to put together a more accurate picture of where communities such as London are headed.
“It’s a good starting point,” McGregor said. “We’re trying to tell the story. . .of what’s really happening out there.”