Data shows recent sexual assault conviction of N.L. police officer not the norm

The sexual assault conviction of Const. Carl Douglas Snelgrove -- after a previous acquittal and a mistrial -- is rare, according to research.

ST. JOHN'S, N.L. — On Monday afternoon, 11 billboards lit up across St. John's with messages supporting the woman who was raped by a local police officer in connection with a gruelling case that shook the city for years.

Ashley MacDonald was behind the effort to get the billboards up. She's a sexual survivor and says the complainant in the trial — "Jane Doe" as she's known in the community — inspired her to tell her own story.

"The amount of tears that were shed over the guilty verdict, tears of just pure relief … it was just this collective sigh," MacDonald said in an interview Monday about the verdict, which was delivered by a jury on Saturday.

"I was prepared for a hung jury and I was prepared for an acquittal. I was not expecting conviction."

Royal Newfoundland Constabulary Const. Carl Douglas Snelgrove was found guilty of sexually assaulting the woman in her home while on duty in 2014. The verdict concluded his third trial on the charge, following a successful appeal of an acquittal and a subsequent mistrial.

Police Chief Joe Boland issued a statement Monday saying Snelgrove remained on the force, though he is suspended without pay. "With the conviction of Doug Snelgrove, we await the conclusion of all criminal proceedings on this matter," he said.

Snelgrove's defence lawyer, Randy Piercey, did not return a request for comment on whether his client planned to appeal the verdict.

MacDonald's surprise at Saturday's verdict is justified, according to the work of Danielle McNabb, a PhD student at Queen's University.

"Convictions in these types of cases are relatively rare," McNabb said in an interview Monday. "The general public are more likely to be found guilty of sexual assaults compared to police officers."

McNabb said it's not easy to find national data on conviction rates for police-involved sexual assaults. She co-authored a paper this spring in the Canadian Journal of Law and Society that attempted to provide an idea of how often police are charged with sex crimes.

She analyzed 159 criminal cases involving Ontario police officers investigated by the province's police oversight agency, the Special Investigations Unit. The cases span 15 years, from January 2005 to the end of May 2020.

Sexual assault accounted for slightly more than 26 per cent of the cases, McNabb said, making it the second most frequent charge against Ontario police during that period, behind physical assault. The charges were evenly split between off-duty and on-duty incidents, she said.

Of all the officers who ended up before a judge, 43 per cent — 15 officers — were acquitted, McNabb said. Civilians have a 15 per cent higher chance of being convicted of sexual assault than police officers, she added.

Her numbers show Crown prosecutors withdrew the charges involving seven officers. Five officers pleaded guilty, five others were convicted and three cases are pending.

Regarding the officers who were convicted, McNabb said they faced harsher punishments compared with civilians — likely because judges considered the officers' abuse of power, she said.

"I think it's so important to think about that extra difficulty for complainants to report sexual assault when it's a police officer involved," she said, noting that in the general population, sexual assault is one of the most under-reported crimes in the country.

"I think that likely flows from this idea that police officers follow an informal code to protect one another from professional and even criminal consequences," McNabb said.

Elsewhere in the country, Alberta's Serious Incident Response Team publishes thorough data involving police officers charged with sexual assault. The team analyzed 67 allegations of sexual assault from 2015 to 2020, according to its website, and of those, four officers faced charges and one was convicted after pleading guilty to a lesser charge.

"It's hit or miss," said Erick Laming, a PhD student at University of Toronto who studies police oversight agencies, referring to the availability of good data on police-involved sexual assaults. For example, he said, British Columbia's police watchdog agency isn't mandated to investigate officer-involved sexual assault.

Both Laming and McNabb say police oversight agencies should consistently track and publish comprehensive data on their investigations and when — or if — they end up in the courts. Doing so would increase public trust, they say.

But a great way to increase public trust is to charge and punish officers when warranted, McNabb said, referring to Snelgrove.

MacDonald agrees. And though his conviction was a total shock to her, something has shifted, she said.

"I definitely think there's a collective like, 'Hold on. Maybe it does work sometimes, maybe it can work,'" she said.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 17, 2021.

Sarah Smellie, The Canadian Press

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