University of Manitoba sociology Prof. Jane Ursel has been analysing data on Winnipeg sexual assaults in a study geared toward improving police investigation and Crown prosecution of sexual assault cases. She presented during the seminar a preliminary analysis of data gathered in 2015 and 2016. Of the sexual assault cases reported in those years, 614 involved adult complainants and 348 young victims aged 12-17. Perpetrators were mostly adults rather than peers in the youth cases. Only seven per cent of the sexual assaults were committed in the context of domestic violence. Violent relationships where the victim is also sexually assaulted tend to be more lethal but reporting of such sexual assaults is rare. When it occurs, the victims tend to be very committed to following the case through for their own protection, Ursel said.
Law reforms created three levels of sexual assault in Canada. Level 1 is a sexual assault with minor or no physical injuries. Level 2 is sexual assault using a weapon or causing physical harm while Level 3 includes extreme violence such as maiming victims or endangering their lives. Winnipeg Police Insp. Blunden clarified that Level 1 includes a large spectrum of sexual assaults ranging from a sexual touch to non-consensual sexual intercourse.
Ursel questioned the law reform on the basis that penetration is much more traumatic than some other Level 1 offences but Busby said proving penetration can be a barrier to conviction in those countries that still focus on that issue.
Ursel’s data shows that people between 18 and 24 are most often sexually assaulted. 42 per cent of reported cases were perpetrated by strangers because ‘‘people are less likely to report on someone they know,” Ursel said. Perpetrators often seek out people who have vulnerabilities that might make them less likely to report the offence. Such vulnerabilities include mental illness, addictions, physical illness or intellectual disability. Blunden noted that the police analyze data to check for similar incidents so they can figure out the mode of operation of serial predators. He warned university students in the audience not to accept free drinks or walk away from their drink at a bar or party because he frequently interviews victims whose drinks were spiked with drugs. “It happens all the time.”
The highest attrition for sexual assault cases is due to the victims choosing not to proceed, Ursel reported. Winnipeg police are working on improving outreach and culturally appropriate referrals in order to change this. Historically, Indigenous people have been distrustful of the police but more than half of sexual assaults reported to Winnipeg police involved an Indigenous victim. Sadly, Indigenous women are more likely to be unable to identify suspects, drop cases and suffer more severe sexual assaults.
Why is it difficult for police to record the ethnicity of victims?
Questions on ethnicity are sensitive and can create distrust. The solution is to be careful about when police ask the question. The ethnicity of perpetrators is easier to capture.
What did police find most surprising in the data analysis?
The percentage of victims who declined to proceed with the case is particularly alarming and it shows that the police need to make it easier for victims to come forward and carry through with a case.
Listen to podcasts from seminars in this series.