In Conversation with Robyn Doolittle: the Reporter Behind the Globe’s Unfounded Investigation

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In Conversation with Robyn Doolittle: the Reporter Behind the Globe’s Unfounded Investigation

The reporter who investigated Rob Ford turns her attention to sexual assault cases.

Robyn Doolittle

Globe and Mail investigative reporter Robyn Doolittle. Photo by Nicole Brumley

Within a week of releasing their investigation, the Globe and Mail started a national conversation about the term “unfounded” and the flaws in handling sexual assault cases by police.

In a 20-month investigation led by investigative reporter Robyn Doolittle, the Globe revealed that police close about one in five sexual assault cases as “unfounded,” meaning that investigators determined that no crime occurred. Unfounded cases are not reported to Statistics Canada, which wrongly gives the impression that less sexual assault complaints are being reported to police.

The investigation revealed a national unfounded rate of 19 per cent. Toronto had a 7 per cent rate over a 5-year period from 2010–14.

More than 30 police forces representing more than 1,000 communities have announced further investigations into unfounded sexual assault cases in response to the Globe’s report, with more expected to follow.

Toronto Police spokesperson Mark Pugash told Torontoist that the city’s low unfounded rate is a recognition of the commendable work by Toronto’s sexual assault investigators, but more work still needs to be done.

“We are always reviewing our procedures and our processes to see if they can be improved, and that is particularly accurate as far as sexual assaults are concerned. The training over the last number of years has improved enormously,” Pugash says. 

Toronto Police enforce a policy that requires any officer investigating sexual assault to attend a two-week Sexual Assault Investigators course. Over 2,000 uniform officers—about 40 per cent of the service—have completed the training.

Local investigators rely heavily on sexual assault survivors to report cases, he says. Toronto Police are in the process of making their online sexual assault survivors guide available in various languages to help survivors understand the way the court process and overall investigation works.

“I think the 7 per cent is a reflection of a lot of the work that we have done. It doesn’t mean that we are content with where we are,” Pugash says.

Torontoist caught up with Doolittle to get the story behind her latest investigation.

NB: Were you surprised about Toronto’s low unfounded rate?

RD: I wasn’t surprised by Toronto for a couple of reasons. One of the things that really appealed to me about this project was that by going across the country, we were able to go into all of these small communities where there is not a large media presence.

Toronto Police are by far not perfect, but they have so many eyes on them—they have the Civilian Oversight Board, the largest newspapers and TV outlets are based here. They had a very high-profile scandal around how they handle sexual assaults about 20 years ago. They have actually done a lot of work in this area, so it is not surprising to me that the really large cities with lots of scrutiny are doing better.

It’s the smaller jurisdictions, the smaller places that don’t have a huge media presence, where I was really interested, and where, frankly, my suspicions were confirmed that they would have higher [unfounded] rates.

NB: How did you feel after receiving the first responses to your freedom of information (FOI) requests, knowing that you had discovered a potential story?

RD: Because they came in one at a time, it kind of unfolded over time. The first batch came in over an eight-month period. At the end of the eight months we were kind of taking stock and looking at what we were working with. That was when we decided that if we were going to do this, we need to do the entire country…What was surprising was the huge disparity between some cities, whereas some places had unfounded rates in the 40 to 60 per cent range.

NB: How did you get people to open up to you about their sexual assault experiences?

RD: I relied largely on rape crisis centres and counselling services to [connect] me with people. I wrote everyone a long letter explaining what I was doing, why it was more than just some daily story, and why I think it would be worth it for people to speak with me.

Almost every single centre that phoned me to have a conversation about the project, for good reasons, were reluctant to [connect] journalists with complainants…I found once I was able to explain the situation through to the centres, people got on board and were really excited that the Globe was looking at this in such a serious way and facilitated those conversations. 

Sometimes I went to people, I went to rallies and court cases. I kept an eye out in the media for stories of unfounded cases…The majority of people that I spoke with, I connected with through rape crisis centres.

Certainly, it is really difficult to talk to someone about what was probably the worst day of their life. I got better at it as I went along; I was learning more about trauma as well. One of the more challenging aspects of the investigation was locating people.

NB: What advice would you give to younger journalists who are interested in investigative journalism?

RD: You [have to] do a lot of reporting first before you can really know for sure that this is worth [investigating further] because you don’t want to go in with assumptions…Pick a topic that you are interested in and care about because you are going to be spending a lot of time with it.

I had an editor give me this advice when I was just starting out and it was really good advice—in your first years, you want to master the art of news reporting. Do different beats, be a general assignment reporter. Get a look at what is out there and meet people, develop sources, and through that expertise, you will be a better investigative journalist, if that is where you want to end up.

NB: How do you feel about the work you have put into the unfounded investigation and the response it has been getting so far?

RD: I am really thrilled that there is so much change so quickly. I believed in the story, the Globe believed in the story, and that is why we put so much into it. It was just incredible to see how quickly institutions, government, law makers, and the police community stood up and said this is a big problem, we need to fix it.

Within the first week, there was huge movement. There is still much more to do to make sure that a lot of these promises are actually fulfilled, and that these reviews that police services are announcing are effective and are the right kind of reviews. But it is obviously an incredible first step.

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