In this 2018 photo, a marcher carries a sign with the popular Twitter hashtag #MeToo used by people speaking out against sexual harassment as she takes part in a Women’s March in Seattle. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren, File)

In this 2018 photo, a marcher carries a sign with the popular Twitter hashtag #MeToo used by people speaking out against sexual harassment as she takes part in a Women’s March in Seattle. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren, File)

Police missteps leave Greater Victoria sexual assault survivor without justice

Police made several mistakes in handling of case, lawyer says

WARNING: This article contains details of sexual assault that some may find disturbing.

When Chelsea went to the Saanich Police Department in 2016, she knew the chances her case would ever see the inside of a courtroom were low. She knew the stats, and the support workers at the Victoria Sexual Assault Centre had repeatedly prepared her for disappointment.

But she also knew what happened to her. She had said ‘no’ numerous times, she had clearly expressed her discomfort, and he hadn’t stopped.

Chelsea said she was raped by a local real estate agent on Oct. 15, 2016.

She requested Black Press Media use only her first name, to protect her identity.

In the years that followed, Saanich police made several mistakes in the handling of Chelsea’s report, including failing to read the agent his rights before questioning him – making any incriminating aspects of what he said inadmissible in court – and mislabeling Chelsea’s file as “unfounded.” The department has ultimately acknowledged this.

Later, when Chelsea reached out to the agent’s employer and licensing body, they too dismissed her claims.

Chelsea, like many before and after her, would get no justice.

‘No’ didn’t stop him

She met the agent on Tinder. At 28, Chelsea was trying out the app for the first time and was wary of meeting up with someone she didn’t know. But, when she swiped on the agent’s profile and saw he worked for a local Royal LePage branch, she felt a sense of security knowing he was easily searchable online and worked in the public eye.

Black Press Media is not naming the agent as charges were not laid.

A week of messaging went by and Chelsea agreed to meet at the agent’s home. Almost immediately after arriving, Chelsea said he started pressuring her to have sex. He was pushy, persistent and aggressive, she said.

As things began to escalate she told him no, she didn’t want to have sex; no, she didn’t want to go to the bedroom; no, she didn’t want him to take off her clothes. But he kept going. And eventually, Chelsea said she gave up.

“I always thought I would fight back. The shame and the guilt that I didn’t, and admitting I was actually intimidated by him…”

READ ALSO: Advocates create Canada-wide support list for sexual assault survivors

Over the next few days, she disclosed what happened to friends and a sexual assault crisis line worker. Each one told her it was assault and she needed to report it. Still, the decision to do so – Statistics Canada estimates five per cent of survivors report the incident to police – didn’t come easy.

Chelsea was plagued by self-doubt and, like many survivors, thought maybe it would be easier to tell herself it had been a mistake and to force herself to forget what had happened.

In the end, it was considering future women who may encounter the agent that convinced her to complete an evidence kit and recount her trauma to police.

“I felt like it may not help me, but it will give validity to the person who comes out of the woodwork next. I wouldn’t want another woman to go through that in order for him to get repercussions.”

‘I believe you’ but it’s not enough

The experience with Saanich police was demeaning and disheartening, Chelsea said.

The female officer conducting her intake interview did a good job overall, she said, but at one point asked if she thought the agent had been joking when he purposefully touched her in a way she had said she didn’t want.

Meeting with the investigating officer, Chelsea said her experience was again trivialized, even though the officer began by telling her she, too, had been sexually assaulted.

“It was hard to have someone who presented themselves as a survivor questioning your experience.”

According to Chelsea, when the officer told her they wouldn’t be sending her report to Crown counsel, she said the agent had admitted Chelsea had said no to sex over Tinder and no to sex in person, but that in his mind the conversation had changed.

Chelsea said the officer told her “I believe you,” but that the agent hadn’t known. “There was something in the officer’s voice, that she was pleading with me almost.”

It wasn’t until several years later when she approached police to complain about how they handled her report that Chelsea learned about their more consequential mistakes.

First, the investigating officer had failed to read the agent his rights ahead of interviewing him. This made any incriminating aspects of his account unusable in court, according to Victoria lawyer Elizabete Costa.

Second, Chelsea’s report was classified as “unfounded,” a label exposed by a 20-month Globe and Mail investigation as proof of police bias and mishandling of sexual assault reports in Canada.

Prior to a change in 2018, “unfounded” by definition meant the incident never occurred. Essentially, the complainant’s account was false.

The Saanich Police Department declined an interview citing privacy considerations, but audio Chelsea recorded during her complaints process and obtained by Black Press Media shows them acknowledging their mistakes.

Mistakes acknowledged, but still no justice

“I want to acknowledge after reading your file that you are a survivor, that what happened to you was real and that our investigation could have been better,” a Saanich police sergeant began in a meeting with Chelsea in August 2020, which was recorded.

“The police, unfortunately, have a fairly lengthy record of not doing a good job with sexual assaults,” he said. Well, the criminal justice system as a whole, he clarified.

Indeed, the Saanich Police Department has mishandled sexual assault reports before.

In April 2019, a young Saanich woman said police dismissed her sexual assault report, because of her “body language.” The same year, a complaint claiming an investigating officer asked a woman about her alcohol consumption and whether she had stayed in a park to avoid a “walk of shame,” resulted in a review of the Saanich department by the Vancouver police force.

READ ALSO: Saanich woman says sexual assault was dismissed by police because of her ‘body language’

READ ALSO: Saanich police officer’s ‘walk of shame’ comment spurs call for provincial reform

Critics would argue a review of a police force by another is blinded by shared internal biases, but it did result in mandatory trauma-informed practice training for all Saanich officers in 2020, part of which focused on sexual assault.

Chelsea acknowledged the sergeant was more trauma-informed than the initial officers she interacted with.

Throughout his complaint investigation, the sergeant made two main changes to Chelsea’s file: he noted the agent had not been trying to be smooth or make Chelsea comfortable, as the interviewing officer had wrongly recorded, and he reclassified it to “founded, but not charged.”

“Founded” means police determine the incident did occur or was attempted, or there is no credible evidence to prove otherwise.

Despite the changes, the sergeant told Chelsea he still wouldn’t send her report to Crown counsel. He said the agent’s interview was inadmissible and that he had a right to a trial in a timely manner, not four years after the incident.

But, lawyer Elizabete Costa said it isn’t a police officer’s job to determine that. Instead, admissibility and time passed are factors the B.C. Prosecution Service could consider upon receiving the report. As well, the defence could use such considerations to argue if charges were to make it to trial.

According to the Saanich Police Department, between 2011 and May 25, 2021, it received 858 sexual assault reports. Of those, charge consideration reports were sent to Crown on 173 instances, and 153 of those went to court. That means Saanich police sent forward about 20 per cent of sexual assault reports.

Yet a 2016 meta-analysis published in the Archives of Sexual Behaviour found 95 per cent of reported sexual assaults are true, not accounting for the vast majority that go unreported.

Costa said for change to occur there needs to be mandatory training in the handling of sexual assault reports at every level of the justice system and she believes police shouldn’t be handling them at all.

“I would not trust a white male police officer to have a clue as to what consent is in law,” she said. “It should not be left in the hands of an institution like the police that we already know to be sexist and racist.”

Instead, it should be up to lawyers, she said.

Turning elsewhere for justice

Finding no justice in the criminal system, Chelsea turned to a government program called the Crime Victim Assistance Program that provides support to victims of violent crime based on civil standards – a balance of probabilities – rather than criminal ones, which looks for proof beyond a reasonable doubt. The program ruled Chelsea was in fact a survivor of sexual assault and helped to fund 48 counselling sessions for her.

It was this determination Chelsea used when she decided to reach out to the agent’s employer and licensing body in the summer of 2019. She emailed both Royal LePage and the Real Estate Council of B.C. and told them she had been raped by one of their agents.

Royal LePage promised to look into Chelsea’s complaint, then didn’t reply for four months. A follow-up email from Chelsea, obtained by Black Press Media, suggested she would take the matter to social media if they didn’t respond, prompting an immediate reply. They told her because no charges had been laid, there was nothing they could do.

Speaking with Black Press Media, a spokesperson for Royal LePage said the company would handle the complaint differently today. In the midst of numerous allegations against Greater Victoria real estate agents and restaurant employees in recent months, Royal LePage Coast Capital developed a sexual violence and misconduct policy.

READ ALSO: Victoria tattoo shops respond to sex assault allegations against male artists

READ ALSO: Fourth Greater Victoria real estate agent fired over allegations of sexual assault

Upon learning from Black Press Media that Chelsea’s file had been reclassified as founded, but not charged, the spokesperson said the company had cut ties with the agent. They did not inform Chelsea of the decision at the time.

Meanwhile, the Real Estate Council of B.C. said it doesn’t have a policy for sexual assault complaints. After not hearing back from them for close to two years, Chelsea received a response from the council explaining they had a backlog of complaints but were still looking into hers.

A review by the council could, at worst, result in the revoking of the agent’s licence.

Systemic change needed

Initially, Chelsea said what she wanted most was accountability – on the part of the agent, his employer and the police. But her answer has since changed.

Justice for her report is not enough if the system that failed her remains the same.

“I want the system – police, courts, judges – to start looking at sexual assault with the lens of ‘what active steps were taken to ensure consent?’” she said.

When consent is assumed it allows perpetrators to plead ignorance, she said, and ignorance should not be enough to excuse rape.

For resources and help dealing with sexual assault, visit the Victoria Sexual Assault Centre at vsac.ca or call 250-383-3232.

READ ALSO: Victoria sexual assault survivor achieves rare overturning of publication ban


Do you have a story tip? Email: jane.skrypnek@blackpress.ca.

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