Ottawa police should adopt the ‘Philadelphia model’ to give sexual assault victims justice

Melodie Morin (Image: CBC)
Melodie Morin (Image: CBC)

The Ottawa Police Service’s recently announced decision to charge the man who allegedly raped, strangled, punched, and spat upon Mélodie Morin on the University of Ottawa campus last fall may reassure the public that police are responding effectively to sexual violence in our city. Should we rest easy?

In November 2015, Ottawa police told this young student that they would not be laying charges because they spoke to the alleged perpetrator and he told them it was a “misunderstanding.” After Morin went to the media and her friends started a petition to demand re-investigation, police stated publicly that they had not closed the investigation and would be continuing to investigate her report.

The man was reportedly represented by counsel through the continuing investigation that followed. We are told that he then left the country, seemingly without legal restraint. Thereafter police decided to lay charges of sexual assault against him. They warn that he will be arrested if he returns to Canada.

Despite Morin’s evident relief that her efforts produced at least some justice, her experience ought to tell us that we have a serious problem here. Rarely will women who have experienced sexual assault be able to fight the police when they decide not to pursue a sexual assault report. Further, most women cannot marshal the resources to do so successfully.

Nor should they have to. No woman reporting this crime should have to pay the kind of price Morin paid to see a proper investigation. She gave up her right to anonymity and privacy and put her name and face in the media. Doubtless she is paying a price for her public exposure — one that we should wish on no woman. Morin also lost her fall semester in her first year of university. Very few women can withstand the “second rape” — what our justice system puts them through.

We should be deeply concerned about the standard used by Ottawa police to make their initial determination that charges would not be filed. If an alleged perpetrator’s claim that the woman’s reported experience was a “misunderstanding”  is the police yardstick for whether a crime has been committed then almost none will be charged. They all offer some version of “misunderstanding”  — “She consented,” “She didn’t fight,” “I thought she consented.”

The fact that it took this long for police to reach a conclusion is also worrisome. She reported on September 25; they declined to lay charges more than a month later on November 7; they then took two additional months to determine that charges were in fact warranted. Those months allowed this man to leave the jurisdiction and left her in fear and limbo all that time. The fact that they have laid charges rings rather hollow — he is not here to answer to them.

The window provided into the state of policing sexual assault by this case tells us that major structural changes are needed if our police are to respond professionally to women’s reports. If this is what happens when a young, white university student reports allegations as serious as these, then imagine what happens when the woman is working class, disabled, homeless, or Indigenous. Or when she is reporting her husband, her boyfriend or her boss.

Nothing short of adoption of what advocates call the “Philadelphia model” — a model that requires activists from the violence against women movement to review police decisions on these files on an ongoing basis and to work in equal partnership with police to correct such egregious errors — can fix the problem we have here.

This model was adopted by Philadelphia 14 years ago in an effort to clean up a scandalous police record of sweeping women’s sexual assault reports under the rug. It has received the ongoing endorsement of both frontline women’s groups and Philadelphia police and has been credited with countless corrected investigations, an increased charge rate, interventions for serial predators, and enhanced confidence on the part of women to report sexual violence.

Ottawa women deserve no less. The problem of policing violence against women in our community is as deep and as resistant to change. Failures like the one in Morin’s case endanger us all, and Ottawa police cannot assure us that this is not commonplace. Here’s hoping Minister Naqvi will listen and respond at the provincial level with a model for policing violence against women that ensures transparency and accountability.

Elizabeth Sheehy, LL.B., LL.M., LL.D. (Honoris causa), FRSC, is Vice Dean Research and Shirley Greenberg Chair for Women and the Legal Profession at the University of Ottawa Faculty of Law. Her research record includes her most recent books: the edited collection Sexual Assault in Canada: Law, Legal Practice and Women’s Activism (Ottawa: University of Ottawa Press, 2012) and Defending Battered Women on Trial: Lessons from the Transcripts (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2014).

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