When Toronto police Sgt. Christopher Heard was found guilty of sexual assault Wednesday, it marked the first time in at least six years that such charges from Ontario’s police watchdog led to a conviction against a Toronto officer.
The Special Investigations Unit (SIU) has looked into 82 allegations of sexual assault by Toronto police officers since 2013, according to case data obtained by CBC Toronto. Of those, only five cases have led to sexual assault-related charges.
And until Thursday, the three officers those cases related to had all been acquitted — including Heard.
The judge in Heard’s first trial dismissed the charges against him but the Crown successfully appealed that decision, and a re-trial was held in June.
On Thursday, Justice Philip Downes found Heard guilty of two counts of sexual assault in connection with two separate incidents in 2015 where he picked up women in his marked police car and then fondled them as he drove them to their homes.
In his ruling, Downes said Heard considered the women’s allegations “false, contrived, or imagined, and motivated by a dislike of the police.”
The judge rejected that argument, saying the sergeant “was not a credible witness.”
The other two officers who were charged following sexual assault investigations by the SIU were facing historic allegations dating as far back as the 1970s.
Statistics similar to general population
Although a single conviction in six years might seem very low, one local expert says the SIU case numbers aren’t much different than statistics from across the country.
“This is very typical,” said Deb Singh, from the Toronto Rape Crisis Centre. “You can very much parallel these 82 cases to the population at large.”
Less than half of reported sexual assault incidents lead to a charge being laid, and only about a quarter of those charges lead to a conviction, according to 2014 numbers from Statistics Canada.
And that’s not including the fact that 83 per cent of sexual assaults are never reported to police in the first place.
A percentage that Singh believes is likely even worse when the perpetrator is a cop.
“I can only imagine someone who is sexually assaulted by a police officer wanting to go to the very institution someone was representing that did this to them,” said Singh.
In terms of solutions, Singh wants to see more of a focus on “preventative and proactive education” to help stop people from committing sexual assault in the first place.
“We put so much energy into a conviction, but that doesn’t take away what happened to survivors,” Singh said.