Over the summer, the Service de police de la Ville de Montréal (SPVM) reported a decrease in the number of sexual assaults in the greater Montreal area. At a cursory glance, this decrease seems to be a trend worth celebrating. Unfortunately, this may well be a case of “lies, damned lies, and statistics” – the decrease in reported cases does not necessarily reflect a decrease in the number of sexual assaults that occur. Rather, the intimidation of the police force could be preventing survivors of sexual assault from reporting to the police.
It is important to note that police statistics cannot completely be trusted. It is the job of some within the police to make sure that crime statistics decrease or stay low. The truth is not always important, as long as the numbers go down.
While the SVPM has published its lowered statistics, the Centre pour les victimes d’agression sexuelle de Montreal, a shelter for sexual assault survivors, has not reported any decrease in sexual assault this summer. Perhaps survivors do not trust the police, and would rather go to community services to receive support.
And why should survivors trust the police? As we’ve seen over the course of the student strike, police are often unnecessarily abusive. They do not, as a whole, exude an open and inviting atmosphere, something particularly important to victims of highly sensitive crimes. In fact, the police in this country have shown a disturbing proclivity toward sexual assault that would make any survivor wary.
The Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), a police force that serves all of Canada, is facing a lawsuit from over 200 ex-employees who have experienced and witnessed alleged extensive sexual harassment of women within the force. Faced with this disturbing news, one British Columbia recruiter, Maria Nickel, said that women joining the force would need “inner strength” to endure any harassment, basically excusing the conduct of anyone in the force who has harassed a woman. Nickel, in advising female Mounties, said that “you can…let yourself be a victim of [sexual harassment] or…say ‘No…my intention is that I’m going to succeed,’” reinforcing the victim-blaming culture of sexual harassment and assault rather than placing blame on the excusatory culture of the RCMP. Why would any survivor feel comfortable reporting to a group that allows sexual harassment within its own ranks?
Similarly, the stigmatization of sexual crimes makes it difficult for any survivor to file a report. Survivors of sexual assault often fear societal judgement or blame, making them hesitant to talk about their case. This stigmatization, and fear of the police, must be changed – but a culture cannot be changed overnight.
This is why we need more alternatives to the police for sexual assault reporting. Peer-run groups like the Sexual Assault Centre of the McGill Students’ Society (SACOMSS) are spaces in which survivors can comfortably report sexual assaults without fear of abuse or stigmatization. It is imperative that more spaces like this be created around the city, especially when institutions like Concordia University do not have student-run sexual assault centres. We must be skeptical of police statistics, realizing that a part of police administration is lowering crime statistics, even if that means bending the truth. Furthermore, police need to change how they react to sexual assaults – with more thorough training in the police academy, by becoming more open to reports of sexual assault crimes, and by actively addressing rape culture within their ranks. Until all this is accomplished, however, reports of lowered sexual assault crimes must be viewed with a wary eye.