The municipality’s Board of Police Commissioners hopes to have a team of advocates reviewing Halifax Regional Police sexual assault investigations later this year.

The board debated options for implementing the Violence Against Women Advocate Case Review (VACR) model at its meeting on Wednesday.

Sunny Marriner is the Canadian lead on the VACR model, and gave a presentation to the board in June 2022. As the Halifax Examiner reported at the time, the model reviews investigations that don’t lead to charges to determine whether officers made the right decision:

It’s an issue that came to the fore nationally in 2017, when the Globe and Mail published Robyn Doolittle’s Unfounded investigation, which found that one in five cases were being declared “unfounded.” Marriner told the board on Monday that while the series raised the profile on the issue, and led to thousands of reviews, it also made people think four of five cases were leading to charges. But only about 5% of cases are reported at all, and only 0.25% of cases lead to a conviction.

With VACR, a team of local people already working with sexual assault survivors reviews each of the cases that doesn’t lead to charges. The program has been implemented or is in the process of being implemented in 30 jurisdictions across Canada, Marriner told the board.

As has been on display at the Police Review Board hearing into Carrie Low’s case this week, police can mishandle sexual assault cases in myriad ways. VACR can, according to its website, “identify cases requiring further investigation by police.”‘

The board voted last year to recommend Chief Dan Kinsella work with Marriner on options to implement the model in HRM. In a report to the board on Wednesday, HRP Supt. Andrew Matthews outlined three options.

The first option was the model Marriner had described, where advocates “would be granted access to all closed sexual assault investigations,” and would report findings on each case back to HRP quarterly. The second was a watered-down “hybrid” option where “Files would not be reviewed if they are closed at the request of the survivor.”

“In cases where the victim does not want further police action, we believe that a trauma-informed response should be the primary approach. The victim’s safety and well-being should be the main priority, and the police should respect the victim’s wishes,” Matthews wrote in the report.

“However, third-party advocate case review can still be beneficial in these cases. Survivors frequently tell advocates they feel actively discouraged by police in pursuing charges through the courts. The advocate can also provide feedback to the police on how they handled the case and identify areas for improvement.”

The third option in Matthews’ report was the status quo, but Kinsella said police were looking at the first two options. Halifax-district RCMP Chief Supt. Jeff Christie said the Mounties are “very flexible,” and will work with Kinsella and Matthews on the implementation.

Matthews told the board he’s working with Marriner to implement the review model “without disrupting business and without having a negative impact.”

Marriner said the advocates reviewing cases would be people working in Halifax.

“The folks who are in Halifax on the ground and talking to communities are the ones that we want to be leading these reviews because then they have two data sources,” Marriner said.

“They both have the information that they’re getting from the files and what they’re seeing there, but then they’re also hearing from the survivors in the community, whether or not they feel that the experience of reporting is changed or improving.”

Marriner gave the example of people who work on crisis phone lines. She said they have to be people who are talking to survivors as their “core” work and are subject matter experts.

She said she supports all of the teams across the country.

“I train, I support, I’m here always for all of our teams,” Marriner said.

“So there’s a supportive element that’s always there through the fact that we have this national coordination, but the individuals themselves are going to be community members, subject matter experts from your community, who are able to carry this forward in partnership with Halifax police service.”

Marriner said advocates could be reviewing files by the fall.

Coun. Lindell Smith said he prefers the first option outlined in the report, the proper VACR model. He moved to have the police bring another update back by the end of October. That motion passed.

The board had several other items on its agenda Wednesday evening. It deferred all of them after spending most of the meeting, more than two hours at the beginning, in camera. There were two items on the in camera agenda — both personnel matters.

Zane Woodford is the Halifax Examiner’s municipal reporter. He covers Halifax City Hall and contributes to our ongoing PRICED OUT housing series. Twitter @zwoodford

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  1. There are a few other things to note from last nights meeting, all of which are nauseating.

    First, 3 of the commissioners (including the chair) had something better to do than stay the whole time for the meeting.

    Second, while Smith made the motion, with a deadline, his peremptory groveling was disgusting: he basically was begging the Chief to say that they would not listen to Board direction (e.g. to actually implement one of the 3 recommendations already studied) and they needed more time to tell tell the board what the policy should be.

    Finally, the RCMP dropped that HRM RCMP currently do *no* regular reviews of SA cases, though the other geos do so at least sometimes.

  2. I tuned into the meeting because I wanted to listen to the presentation and debate on the first  item on the agenda regarding violence against women advocate review model and was quite frustrated to have to wait  over 2 hrs. while the Board deliberated in camera on “personnel issues”.

    This Board goes in camera often and for long periods of time.  At  the special meeting last Monday (July 10), the Board went in camera to deal with 2 items identified on the agenda as “personnel matters”.  It is difficult to believe that the Board is meeting in camera so often to deal with “personnel issues” when this is really not their mandate.   

    Makes an old cynic like me suspect that these in camera meetings have nothing to do with personnel and everything to do with matters which, according to the legislative mandate,  should be discussed in a public form.
    Maybe the Board should be renamed “the Secret Policeman’s Ball” and have the agenda written in invisible ink.

    l did wait 2 hrs. and found the presentation by Sunny Marriner informative and could see how her recommendation could lead to changes in our policing model.  It was rather evident from the response by Chief Kinsella that he is not supportive but that did not come as a surprise.

    Time for a new police chief.

    1. I also have a concern that was identified by Doolittle and others including the Carrie Low podcast — and that is that cases are not “closed”. That sexual assault cases are left “open” as if they are being worked on, when they are not… So some concern that the “review” will only be for “closed cases” when apparently, in order to avoid the stats of low charge rates, they just leave cases on the books as “open”… rather than closed without charge. Maybe this particular issue has been fixed – but worth examining if the number are low when they have reviewers in place.