Unfounded criminal incidents in Canada, 2017

by Jacob Greenland and Adam Cotter

Release date: July 23, 2018

Among all crimes reported to the police, a certain number are deemed as unfounded. For a criminal incident to be considered unfounded, it must be "determined through police investigation that the offence reported did not occur, nor was it attempted" (Statistics Canada 2016). When the Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) Survey was launched in 1962 to measure police‑reported crime in Canada, counts of unfounded criminal incidents were collected in order to produce statistics on these type of incidents. Over time, however, inconsistent reporting of unfounded incidents led to poor data quality. It was suggested that varying rates of unfounded incidents may have been attributed to inconsistent classification of calls for service that were deemed non‑criminal. Statistics on unfounded incidents were last published by the Canadian Centre for Justice Statistics (CCJS)—a division at Statistics Canada—as part of the annual crime statistics publication in 1994. The last time rates of unfounded sexual assault were published was in July 2003 (Kong et al. 2003).

Following national media attention in 2017 regarding the use of 'unfounded' by police to classify sexual assaults, several police agencies across Canada announced that they would review sexual assault cases that were labeled as 'unfounded' over recent years (Doolittle 2017). As part of this process, representatives of the policing community—most notably, the Police Information and Statistics (POLIS) Committee of the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police (CACP)—have worked with Statistics Canada to make recommendations to address data quality issues, to ensure standardized reporting and to reinstate the collection of information on unfounded criminal incidents through the UCR Survey.

Specific details relating to amendments made to the UCR Survey were released on July 12, 2018, in the Juristat article, "Revising the classification of founded and unfounded criminal incidents in the Uniform Crime Reporting Survey" (Canadian Centre for Justice Statistics 2018). Given the policing community's agreement to implement these revisions, Statistics Canada announced in April 2017 that CCJS will once again disseminate data on unfounded criminal incidents and publish 2017 data in July 2018.

As such, this Juristat article provides an overview of rates of unfounded criminal incidents for 2017, with a particular focus on sexual assaults given that several police services conducted reviews of their sexual assault cases in 2017 to determine if they had been properly investigated and classified.Note  While CCJS has not published any data on unfounded incidents since 2003, some police services continued to report these incidents through the UCR Survey. As such, rates of unfounded criminal incidents—at the national, provincial and territorial levels—from 2016 will be used as a benchmark for 2017. It should be noted, however, that even though work was done by police services to review their unfounded records, 2017 data may still be subject to inconsistent reporting and may therefore be incomparable across police services. Further, the UCR data does not lend itself to be able to determine the impact reviews may have had on the data reported through the survey.

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Canada's definition of sexual assault

Sexual assaults, like physical assaults, are classified by the Criminal Code into three separate categories depending on the nature and severity of the incident. More specifically, level 1 sexual assault criminalizes assault of a sexual nature that violates the sexual integrity of a person. Level 2 sexual assault criminalizes sexual assault that involves a weapon, bodily harm or threats to cause bodily harm to a person. Lastly, level 3 sexual assault (aggravated sexual assault) criminalizes sexual assault which wounds, maims, disfigures or endangers the life of another person.

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What is an unfounded criminal incident?

When it comes to standards for police‑reported crime statistics, all police‑reported violations require a clearance status, meaning an indicator of whether the incident reported is determined to have taken place, or that it has not. If police determine the violation took place, then the incident is coded as "founded"; if it is determined that the violation reported did not take place, then it is coded as "unfounded".

For those that are founded, police also report the solve status of that incident. An incident that is founded can have a status of either being "not cleared" (meaning not solved), "cleared by charge" (meaning solved and police have charged or recommended a charge against an identified individual) or "cleared otherwise" (meaning police had enough information to lay a charge or recommend a charge against an identified individual, but they did not for a specific reason).Note 

According to the Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) Survey definition in effect in 2017, an incident was deemed 'unfounded' "if it has been determined through police investigation that the offence reported did not occur, nor was it attempted and therefore no violations of the Criminal Code or other federal statute took place at that time or location"Note  (Statistics Canada 2016).

It should be noted that the 2017 data do not reflect the new UCR Survey standards for classifying incidents as founded or unfounded which are based on a victim‑centred approach. This approach puts forth that, unless there is concrete evidence to prove the crime did not happen, it is to be believed that the crime occurred, even if an accused has not been identifiedNote  (Canadian Centre for Justice Statistics 2018). In 2018, this approach was integrated in the UCR Survey and is reflected in revisions to classification categories for the incident clearance status. It is anticipated that all police services in Canada will have these implemented by the end of calendar year 2018. As a result, it is expected that 2019 will be the first year of complete data that follows the new reporting standards. The 2019 data will be released in July 2020.

A first look at 2017 unfounded data

Nationally, in 2017, 7% of all reported Criminal Code violations (excluding traffic offences) were classified as unfounded, meaning that after investigation, police determined that no violation of the Criminal Code or any other federal statute occurred. Over one in ten incidents of violent crime (12%) were classified as unfounded, while 6% of property crimes and 7% of other Criminal Code violations reported were deemed to be unfounded (Table 1).

In 2017, 14% of sexual assaults (levels 1, 2 and 3) reported to police were classified as unfounded. Overall, certain violent offences were more likely to be classified as unfounded by police, such as criminal harassment (27%), indecent or harassing communications (23%), and uttering threats (17%). In contrast, a lower proportion of incidents of robbery (5%) and extortion (5%) were deemed unfounded (Chart 1; Table 1).

Chart 1 Proportion of police-reported incidents classified as unfounded, selected violent offences, Canada, 2017

Data table for Chart 1
Chart 1
Table summary
This table displays the results of Chart 1. The information is grouped by Type of incident (appearing as row headers), Percent classified as unfounded (appearing as column headers).
Type of incident Percent classified as unfounded
Extortion 5
Robbery 5
Firearms - use of, discharge, pointing 9
Physical assault (levels 1, 2, and 3) 9
Other assaults 10
Forcible confinement or kidnapping 12
Non-consensual distribution of intimate images 12
Sexual violations against childrenChart 1 Note 1 14
Sexual assault (levels 1, 2, and 3) 14
Other violent Criminal Code violations 14
Uttering threats 17
Indecent or harassing communications 23
Criminal harassment 27

There were just under 3,900 incidents of sexual assault reported to police in 2017 that were deemed to be unfounded, representing 7% of all unfounded violent criminal incidents (Chart 2; Table 1). At the same time, sexual assault represented 6% of all founded incidents of violent crime. Unfounded criminal incidents generally followed the same trend as overall crime, with the highest‑volume offences representing the largest number of unfounded incidents. For example, physical assault, the most common type of violent crime, also accounted for the highest volume of unfounded criminal incidents in 2017 among violent crimes.

Chart 2 Number of police-reported incidents classified as unfounded, selected violent offences, Canada, 2017

Data table for Chart 2
Chart 2
Table summary
This table displays the results of Chart 2. The information is grouped by Type of incident (appearing as row headers), Number of unfounded incidents (appearing as column headers).
Type of incident Number of unfounded incidents
Extortion 154
Robbery 1,179
Firearms - use of, discharge, pointing 281
Physical assault (levels 1, 2, and 3) 22,519
Other assaults 212
Forcible confinement or kidnapping 502
Non-consensual distribution of intimate images 195
Sexual violations against childrenChart 2 Note 1 1,256
Sexual assault (levels 1, 2, and 3) 3,879
Other violent Criminal Code violations 798
Uttering threats 12,918
Indecent or harassing communications 4,874
Criminal harassment 7,064

Police classified 14% of incidents of level 1 sexual assault as unfounded in 2017. In comparison, the more serious levels of sexual and physical assault were less likely to be classified as unfounded with 9% of level 3 sexual assaults deemed unfounded, 7% of level 2 sexual assaults, 3% of level 2 physical assaults and 1% of level 3 physical assaults.

These latter violations typically are more likely to involve bodily harm or some element of physical evidence. The violations more commonly classified as unfounded, including criminal harassment, indecent or harassing communications, and uttering threats are more likely to rely predominantly on evidence or statements presented by a victim or witnesses.

Nationally, the proportion of sexual assaults deemed unfounded decreased in 2017

In 2017, 14% of sexual assaults (levels 1, 2, and 3) reported to police were classified as unfounded, down from 19% in 2016 (Table 2; Chart 3) (see Text box 1).Note  A heightened awareness about sexual assaults and how they are classified may have had an impact on how other types of incidents were classified in 2017. For example, the proportion of physical assaults (levels 1, 2, and 3) classified as unfounded also decreased, though to a lesser extent (from 11% in 2016 to 9% in 2017) (Table 3; Chart 3).

Chart 3 Police-reported incidents of sexual assault and physical assault classified as unfounded, 2016 and 2017

Data table for Chart 3
Chart 3
Table summary
This table displays the results of Chart 3 Sexual assault and Physical assault, calculated using percent classified as unfounded units of measure (appearing as column headers).
Sexual assault Physical assault
percent classified as unfounded
2016 18.7 11.5
2017 13.6 9.3

Between 2016 and 2017, almost all jurisdictions reported a decrease in the proportion of unfounded sexual assaults. Among the provinces, Ontario (-8 percentage points), Prince Edward Island (-6 percentage points) and Quebec and Nova Scotia (-5 percentage points each) reported the largest changes in proportion of unfounded sexual assaults. The proportion of unfounded sexual assaults was unchanged in Newfoundland and Labrador. The Northwest Territories reported smaller proportions of unfounded sexual assaults in 2017 compared to 2016, while Yukon and Nunavut saw an increase.

In terms of physical assaults, all provinces and territories noted a decrease in the proportion between 2016 and 2017. Prince Edward Island (-11 percentage points), Nova Scotia (-7 percentage points), and Manitoba (-4 percentage points) were the provinces with the greatest decreases (Table 3).

Compared to physical assault, a larger proportion of sexual assaults were classified as unfounded (14% of sexual assaults in 2017, versus 9% of physical assaults) (Chart 4). In Ontario (+7 percentage points), Quebec, British Columbia, and Nunavut (+6 percentage points), higher proportions of sexual assaults were classified as unfounded compared to physical assaults. In Newfoundland and Labrador, Nova Scotia, and the Northwest Territories, the proportion of sexual assaults classified as unfounded ranged from 1 to 5 percentage points lower than the proportion of physical assaults. These were the only 3 provinces and territories to note a higher rate of unfounded physical assaults.

Chart 4 Police-reported incidents of sexual assault and physical assault classified as unfounded, by province and territory, 2017

Data table for Chart 4
Chart 4
Table summary
This table displays the results of Chart 4. The information is grouped by Province and territory (appearing as row headers), Sexual assault and Physical assault, calculated using percent classified as unfounded units of measure (appearing as column headers).
Province and territory Sexual assault Physical assault
percent classified as unfounded
Newfoundland and Labrador 11.9 16.7
Prince Edward Island 24.2 23.7
Nova Scotia 16.7 19.2
New Brunswick 20.5 17.3
Quebec 9.7 3.4
Ontario 14.4 7.8
Manitoba 13.6 11.0
Saskatchewan 12.5 10.1
Alberta 13.7 12.4
British Columbia 15.1 9.6
Yukon 17.9 17.1
Northwest Territories 16.7 17.3
Nunavut 22.8 16.9
Canada 13.6 9.3

Police-reported incidents of sexual assault increase as proportion of unfounded decreases

It is anticipated that the classification revisions to the Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) Survey that are being adopted by police in 2018 will reduce the proportion of unfounded incidents moving forward, while increasing the number of founded incidents (Canadian Centre for Justice Statistics 2018). The new categories and direction provided to police on categorization should not, on their own, have an effect on the number of incidents reported to police by victims. As such, the clearance (or solve) rates are also expected to decrease with the new survey standards, even though the new classification categories are not yet fully implemented by all police services.

While the number and proportion of unfounded sexual assault incidents decreased between 2016 and 2017, overall reporting of sexual assaults increased. In 2017, there were 28,551 incidents of sexual assault (including founded and unfounded) reported to the police, 8% more than in 2016. The number of founded incidents rose by 13% from 2016. At the same time, the clearance rate lowered by 3 percentage points (Table 2).

The increase in the number of incidents of sexual assault reported to police in 2017 may be partially explained by an increased societal awareness about various forms of sexual misconduct, including sexual assault. During 2017, there was significant attention in news reports and social media such as #metoo and Time's Up that raised awareness of the prevalence of sexual assault and sexual harassment and demanded accountability. This public attention may have resulted in more victims deciding to report their victimization to police. In addition, media reports on the differences in how police classify sexual assaults as founded or unfounded resulted in reviews by police and renewed commitment to victims (Doolittle 2017; Doolittle et al. 2017; Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police 2017). These events may have contributed to increases in reported sexual assaults across many parts of Canada for 2017. In this context, a detailed examination of the increase in police‑reported sexual assault is planned for release in Fall 2018.

Summary

The year 2017 was a turning point for Canadian crime statistics. The attention to varying rates of unfounded sexual assaults led many police services to review their investigation and classification of these incidents. At the same time, the Canadian Centre for Justice Statistics at Statistics Canada worked in collaboration with the Police Information and Statistics Committee of the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police (CACP), the CACP Board of Directors, police services across Canada and experts on the issue of sexual assault and victim‑centred justice to recommend revisions on how to classify unfounded and founded incidents reported to the Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) Survey (see Canadian Centre for Justice Statistics 2018 for details). As a result, Statistics Canada has reinstated data collection and dissemination of all unfounded criminal incidents. While Statistics Canada has delivered in‑person training and developed an online training course on the new UCR Survey classification standards, many police services have also reviewed and revised their policies, procedures and operations with respect to investigations related to sexual assault victims (Doolittle et al. 2017).

It is anticipated that with the implementation of the new UCR Survey standards by all police services by the end of 2018, the rate of unfounded incidents for all types of crime will continue to decrease while the rate of founded incidents will increase and the clearance rate for incidents will decline, directions that are already seen in the 2017 data on sexual assaults and physical assaults.

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Accessing data on unfounded criminal incidents

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Detailed data tables

Table 1 Police‑reported crime for selected offences, Canada, 2017

Table 2 Police‑reported incidents of sexual assault, by clearance status and province or territory, 2016 and 2017

Table 3 Police‑reported incidents of physical assault, by clearance status and province or territory, 2016 and 2017

Survey description

The Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) Survey was established in 1962 with the co‑operation and assistance of the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police. The UCR Survey was designed to measure criminal incidents that have been reported to federal, provincial and municipal police services in Canada.

One incident can involve multiple offences. In order to ensure comparability, counts presented in this article are based upon the most serious offence in the incident as determined by a standard classification rule used by all police services. Counts based upon all violations are available upon request.

Each year, the UCR Survey database is "frozen" at the end of May for the production of crime statistics for the preceding calendar year. However, police services continue to send updated data to Statistics Canada after this date for incidents that occurred in previous years. Generally, these revisions constitute new accused records, as incidents are solved and accused persons are identified by police. However, some new incidents may be added and previously reported incidents may be deleted as new information becomes known.

Revisions are accepted for a one‑year period after the data are initially released. For example, when the 2017 crime statistics are released, the 2016 data are updated with any revisions that have been made between May 2017 and May 2018. The data are revised only once and are then permanently frozen.

References

Alvarez, L. and J. Caňas‑Moreira. 2015. "A victim‑centred approach to sex trafficking cases." FBI. Law Enforcement Bulletin. November 9, 2015. (accessed March 17, 2018).

Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police. 2017. Sexual Assault Investigations. Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police Statement. February 10, 2017. (accessed March 17, 2018).

Canadian Centre for Justice Statistics. 2018. "Revising the collection of founded and unfounded criminal incidents in the Uniform Crime Reporting Survey." Juristat. Statistics Canada Catalogue no. 85‑002‑X.

Doolittle, R. 2017. "Unfounded: Why police dismiss 1 in 5 sexual assault claims as baseless." The Globe and Mail. February 3, 2017. (accessed March 17, 2018).

Doolittle, R., M. Pereira, J. Agius and L. Blenkinsop. 2017. "Unfounded: What is your police service doing about sexual assault?" The Globe and Mail. December 8, 2017. (accessed March 17, 2018).

Human Rights Watch. 2013. Improving Police Response to Sexual Assault. (accessed March 17, 2018).

Kong, R., H. Johnson, S. Beattie and A. Cardillo. 2003. "Sexual offences in Canada." Juristat. Statistics Canada Catalogue no. 85‑002‑X.

State of New Jersey. 1998. Standards for Providing Services to Survivors of Sexual Assault. Office of the Attorney General. Department of Law & Public Security. August 1998. (accessed March 17, 2018).

Statistics Canada. 2016. Uniform Crime Reporting Manual. Surveys and Statistical Programs. Canadian Centre for Justice Statistics. Available upon request.

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