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2017 The University of Florida Award for Investigative Data Journalism, Large Newsroom winner

Unfounded

About the Project

The Globe’s Unfounded project offers an unprecedented view into how Canadian police services handle sexual assault cases, and has sparked a major overhaul to public policy throughout the country.

The investigation began when reporter Robyn Doolittle came across a small study into something called police service “unfounded” rates. Translation: When police complete a criminal investigation, they give it a code to signify the outcome. One of those codes is “unfounded,” which is used when the investigating officer believes an allegation is baseless and that no crime occurred.

When Doolittle tried to find out how often this code is used, she found that Statistics Canada had stopped collecting the numbers more than 15 years ago.

The only way to access the data would be to use Freedom of Information legislation to obtain numbers from each police service individually.

And with more than 1100 police jurisdictions across Canada, it was an enormous task, taking close to 20 months to complete.

We filed more than 300 Freedom of Information requests to acquire the data and police files. To track and verify the data as it came in, we built a custom intake tool, which allowed us to output a standardized dataset in multiple formats for analysis.

The data painted a sobering picture of a systematic problem with how police handle sexual assault reports.

Our probe revealed that 1 in 5 people had their case dismissed as “unfounded.” Once a case is classified “unfounded” it is no longer considered a valid allegation. It is not reflected in local or national statistics and is scrubbed from public record — as if it didn’t happen.

The data also revealed that sex-assault complaints are nearly twice as likely to be designated unfounded as physical assault allegations.

We built a visual story to help readers understand this complex and nuanced data. At any point while exploring the national picture, a user can search their local police jurisdiction to see the unfounded rates for sexual assault and physical assault, in their community.

The “look up” tool made sexual-assault statistics widely available for the first time in Canada. Our analytics showed high time spent, as readers across the country explored the data for their own communities.

To understand why so many cases fell apart, we investigated 54 sexual-assault allegations. The results showed that from coast to coast, police officers are ignorant of consent law, neglect sex-assault investigations and rely on rape myths. We included 36 of these personal stories in order to show the human side of the data.

The response to our series was swift. The federal government announced $100-million to combat gender-based violence. To date, 54 police services — about a third of the country’s forces — have committed to auditing thousands of sex-assault cases. And Canada’s public safety ministers have begun working on a national strategy to deal with sexual-assault cases.

And on April 25, 81 days after our investigation was published, Statistics Canada announced they would once again collect and publish data on unfounded criminal cases.