The Writing on the Wall: Anger and Empathy at the RNC

The Snelgrove story is far from over.

The Snelgrove story is far from over. Though constable Carl Snelgrove of the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary (RNC), accused of raping a woman after driving her to her home in his patrol car, was found “not guilty” by a jury in February, the case is now out on appeal.

That appeal is being handled by Iain Hollett of the Special Prosecutions Office. The original prosecutor, Lloyd Strickland, confirmed there is no new evidence and their position is that “Justice Marshall did not correctly interpret s. 273.1(2)(c)” of the criminal code in which consent is vitiated by “abusing a position of trust, power, or authority” to “induce” consent. Strickland estimates that we will be waiting 9-18 months for a ruling.

None of this gives closure. Snelgrove is still suspended without pay; the Public Complaints Commission process is suspended pending the results of appeal. Through Brier week, graffiti was still appearing around town expressing anger and distrust directed at police.

This is not the end of any of this, not of the complainant’s journey, or of Snelgrove’s consequences, or of the rippling effects of this, and other recent cases of sexual assault through the justice system. It is just the end of one anecdote in the maelstrom of RNC related tales being told this year.

The Investigation 

Within the context of the Snelgrove trial, it may be useful to highlight the story of the investigation itself. And further, to look at the work of the RNC into sexual assaults generally. Again, according to Crown prosecutor Strickland, “In my experience, the police now are highly trained, and conduct careful, professional investigations in these cases.”

What I witnessed while watching the Snelgrove trial does not, generally, contradict those assertions. The investigation, after the rape was reported, seems to have been handled well in many respects. Sergeant Tim Hogan, a member of the RNC since the 1980s, was the primary investigator for the first months before the case was handed over to the Ontario Provincial Police (OPP) for review. Less than three days after the initial report was taken, he had begun gathering much of the evidence against Snelgrove.

The assault, alleged to have happened in December of 2014, was reported by the complainant to on-duty patrol officer, Kelsey Aboud, in the early morning hours of Saturday, January 24th, 2015.  By four pm that afternoon, Tim Hogan was contacted at home by the Child Abuse and Sexual Assault (CASA) unit. He informed his superior, Inspector Constantine, about the allegations, who, in turn, asked Hogan to take over the case.

Sgt Hogan testified at trial that the following Monday, January 26, he went to the complainant’s apartment, where the alleged assault had occurred, to gather forensic evidence. DNA was taken from the couch. That same day, according to Hogan, he requested patrol car GPS logs. The DNA was sent for processing January 27th. January 28th he obtained the Radio Communications. By March 4th they had a preliminary DNA match to Snelgrove.

Multiple Victim Interviews and Credibility 

Sgt. Hogan says he expressed concerns about RNC investigating RNC, but he was told by his superiors to go ahead. Hogan questioned the investigation on one other occasion (again, according to his sworn testimony).

The complainant had already spoken to the patrol officer who took the initial report, given a formal statement to Constable Anderson later that same day, and been re-interviewed by Sgt. Hogan on February 19th, when Hogan was instructed by his superiors to go back and re-re-interview the complainant. He says he disagreed with that decision. The complainant declined that interview anyway through her attorney.

Multiple victim interviews can have negative effects beyond the immediate trauma of the interview itself. Any inconsistencies between statements impacts credibility. In this case, the judge instructed the jury to weigh the credibility of the complainant and that of the accused. She went on to point out specific inconsistencies between initial statements and the complainant’s testimony. Every additional time you are interviewed you open yourself to being discredited.

According to Crown Prosecutor Strickland, “the majority of sexual assault trials come down to consent … We have photographs and fingerprints and DNA and GPS location devices and cell phone records…but nothing that may independently and unquestionably settle the issue of consent. There are usually just two sources of information on consent … the accused and the complainant. You have her word versus his word, and frequently little to independently verify one account over another. For a prosecutor who must prove his case beyond a reasonable doubt, this is a difficult challenge.”

So why are multiple interviews, so potentially damaging to conviction rates, still done in a unit dedicated to, and specially trained for, investigating sexual assault? According to one source, the complainant in the Snelgrove case was interviewed 6 separate times. Which, by my count, means some of those must have been conducted by the OPP, but I could not get confirmation on this, or on the exact number of total interviews from the RNC.

RNC Anecdotally: A Police Profile 

Inspector Barry Constantine, who assigned Hogan to lead the investigation, was there on the victim’s “side” of the courtroom almost every day at trial. When the verdict was read, he was sitting with the victim in a respectful, protective, and comforting position. Literally at her side. He is the one who walked out with her when she left the courtroom in quiet tears.

I sat down with Inspector Constantine last month and asked him about his career at the RNC, the evolution of handling sexual assault cases, the reason the RNC sometimes asks for multiple victim interviews, and what role empathy plays in policing. He is currently the 2nd Officer in Charge of Operational Support but was the Officer in Charge of Crimes Against Persons in 2015 when the Snelgrove investigation began. He laid the charge against Snelgrove.

In 1991, after 7 years on patrol, traffic and accident investigation and crime prevention Inspector Constantine became part of the second wave of officers coming into the newly established CASA unit which had grown directly out of the Hughes Commission recommendations concerning the Mt Cashel orphanage scandals. It was there he “learned … about investigation [and] the dynamics that play a role in sexual assault.”

According to Constantine, CASA officers undergo specialized training on cognitive interview techniques. Because “sexual assault is a very personal crime.” He says investigating it takes a “great amount of understanding and empathy…it is such a personal and intimate assault on a person. You have to have compassion. You do your best to understand.”

He spent three years in the CASA unit before deciding he “had to leave” and moved on to a position in polygraph. People across the professional spectrum who deal with the consequences of sexual assault will understand the need to get some distance after years of concentrated immersion. But his sincere belief in the essential place of empathy in police work endured.

He believes you “have to be an empathetic individual to be drawn to police work,” and he explains further that the RNC “look for it in [their] recruiting.” Volunteering with vulnerable communities is also a part of the RNC training, and Inspector Constantine explains that this is to both, “instil empathy and to see if they can handle” situations where empathy is required. It also, “gives recruits a chance to observe different parts of society.”

Inspector Constantine has a lot of faith in the system and in the individual officers. Once an officer is fully trained, he emphasizes that they are “free to conduct their duties with common sense dictating their behaviour.” He said more than once that police work is “founded on common-sense and integrity.” And though he balked when I asked about the possibility of routine system-wide re-examinations of police tactics in response to flaws that become apparent around these “bad apple” cases he points out that, as in the case of Snelgrove, they do “take allegations against officers seriously.”

In terms of system wide change, he says the RNC has evolved in response to large scale inquiries, citing specifically the Hughes Commission (mentioned above) and also the LaMer Inquiry from 2006 which dealt with wrongful convictions. “Each time we go through a process and recommendations are made … we’d be foolhardy to ignore them.”

When I asked about the practice of re-interviewing victims and the potential damage that could do to a case once it goes to trial, he admits that “the purest version is the best.” But, as investigators, they want as much information as possible and that “you feel negligent if you leave it.” He acknowledged how difficult the interviews can be as they “try to ask the hard questions up front” not only to gather information quickly but to “better prepare [the victim] for cross examination.” But mostly, he emphasized that, as investigators, they believe they simply must try to get as much information as possible. And if something is “forgotten, or missed or new information comes to light” another interview will be requested.

When I pressed him on the possibility that this is counter-productive since more information may not outweigh the fissures created in a victim’s credibility, he reiterated that they simply must go back if “something small is left hanging” and that it is part of “being open and exploring all avenues.” This seems to be one point of disconnect between investigations and prosecutions.

Credit Shyama McWhirter

RNC: Statistically 

According to Constantine, the RNC got over 70,000 calls last year. When I asked about a “typical day,” he explained that “no two days are really alike. Things are always happening. You have to respond.” And there are some positive statistics on how the RNC does respond to reports of sexual assault.

A recent detailed investigative report from the Globe and Mail looked at “unfounded” rates for sexual assault across the country. Cases are closed as “Unfounded” if police deem, after an initial report, that “a crime was neither attempted, nor occurred.” High unfounded rates do not reflect well on a police force. There were large discrepancies nationwide from city to city and between forces. The RNC came out comparatively well with a rate of 11% overall and of 8% in the city of St John’s, averaged over 5 years (2010-2014); both are well below the 19% national rate.

In fact, the RNC’s unfounded rate for sexual assault is below their unfounded rate for other types of assault. The RNC looks even better when compared to two other regional police forces: Sûreté du Québec – 21%; The Ontario Provincial Police – 34%.

One correlation the Globe and Mail found was between low unfounded rates and higher than average numbers of female officers. A recent post on the RNC Facebook page touts, “7 of the 13 officers in our Major Crime Unit are women!” Again, anecdotal, but we should not dismiss positive anecdotes, even as we continue to perseverate on the negative ones.

Another Perspective 

I also spoke with Jen Curran, a criminal defense and mental health lawyer in St John’s, who sees the RNC through their interactions with, and treatment of, her clients – both in files and in court. She said she now “would recommend, to any young woman I know, to go into the police [as a career].”

She empathizes with the officers and says, “people don’t realize how expansive the RNC role is in community protection … The files I see [are often] of a family member having a mental health crisis. Friends or family call the police, not an ambulance. The police show up and try to navigate the situation. They’re almost like paramedics. It’s a lot of calls a night. They are going into homes, bringing people to the hospital, waiting with them at the hospital.”

And, legally, if a person is picked up under Mental Health legislation it is a detention so the officer must stay with them until they are admitted to a hospital. “If they are not admitted,” Curran says, “well, if they brought that person out from Pouch Cove, they aren’t leaving them [outside the Waterford]. “Here’s your new home in Bowring Park! Be a deer!’”

She says, largely, officers just want everyone to get home safely. That feeling in Newfoundland that everybody knows someone you are related to is helpful as defendants are often “not pigeon hole[ed] but know[n] as a person” to an officer. In the youth courts (where Curran worked for years),  there were “officers who were, frankly, popular. I mean, they arrested people all the time but they had a good rapport with people who did not have a good rapport with many.” She chalks it up to “partly training and partly personality” and says she sees the RNC as “good with vulnerable people” though she adds, “there is variety, as with anywhere.”

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