A lawsuit against Halifax Regional Police has renewed calls for the process of how Nova Scotia’s sexual assault reports are handled to be reviewed.
On Monday, sexual assault survivor Carrie Low filed a lawsuit against Halifax Regional Police and RCMP, alleging a negligent and discriminatory investigation into her investigation.
Low’s lawyer says the lawsuit came after an investigator on the case came forward, alleging he was told by senior members that Low was “a drunk” and “a liar” and that her case was not worth pursuing.
Jackie Stevens, executive director of Avalon Sexual Assault Centre, says such stories show how victim-blaming and sexual assault myths remain prevalent in today’s society, and how they can have an impact on how victims are treated after coming forward.
“If police or someone else are viewing someone who’s reporting sexualized violence from a perspective that is rooted in victim-blaming, then they’re not going to be focused on the details of the investigation,” she said.
“They’re looking at it to either dismiss or prove the misconceptions they have of that person.”
Stevens says these attitudes — that the victim is somehow at fault — can have long-lasting impacts and can cause further trauma for the victim.
“It also sends a strong message to people who are committing sexual offences that it’s okay to do that because police aren’t taking it seriously,” she said.
A 2016 report about Avalon’s Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner (SANE) program found that between 2005 and 2014, fewer than a quarter of all sexual assaults reported to Halifax Regional Police resulted in charges, and only seven percent of all reports resulted in a conviction.
“All those things do impact survivors of sexualized violence, because it lowers people’s trust and confidence in the justice system,” said Stevens.
Low’s case is in the majority that do not result in a charge or conviction. While police maintain that her file is still open and the investigation is ongoing, Low filed a complaint in 2019 about the alleged mishandling of her case.
While the complaint was ultimately dismissed by a judge because it wasn’t submitted in the required timeframe, the complaint did prompt an internal investigation, though results have not been made public.
“That review needs to be be public,” said NDP MLA CLaudia Chender.
“I think we need to have a public conversation about whether this system is serving the people it’s designed to serve.”
Chender has worked to push for improvements to the complaint process itself and change the rules around when complaints can be made.
“We need a signal that policing is open to understanding how they can better serve sexual assault victims, and ultimately justice, by taking the feedback that’s been given to them and acting accordingly,” she said.
“We clearly need systemic change.”
Stevens says focusing on actually using independent reviews to address system failures could be the way forward.
Doing so, Stevens said, would be a “way to restore people’s faith in the justice process and … a way to not only improve access to services and justice for survivors, but also to provide better support for professionals to do their jobs.”
Halifax Regional Police declined to comment if there are any plans to review their process and policies for handling sexual assault reports.