Canada's national police force deemed more than 35,000 sexual assault cases unfounded over the past 15 years.
That's 22% — or about one fifth — of all sexual assault cases reported to the RCMP between 2000 and 2015. The RCMP defines an unfounded sexual assault case as one where police determine that no one broke, or tried to break, the law.
"This data is especially alarming because we know that women don't generally lie about sexual assault," says Keira Smith-Tague, a frontline worker and spokesperson for the Canadian Association of Sexual Assault Centres.
The RCMP responded late Friday afternoon to BuzzFeed Canada's questions, saying it couldn't comment on the seemingly high number of sexual assault cases it has deemed unfounded because it's unfamiliar with studies that show the number as much lower.
"The RCMP will consider additional guidance and/or training for RCMP officers if a gap is identified in how sexual assaults are investigated," spokesperson Annie Delisle said in an email.
She also said there are "some data quality issues surrounding the use of 'unfounded'" and that the RCMP "is developing training modules to improve data quality."
BuzzFeed Canada obtained the RCMP data under the Access to Information Act. It includes all forms of sexual assault, such as aggravated sexual assault and sexual assault with a weapon.
The RCMP is responsible for policing areas outside major cities in many provinces, such as British Columbia, Nova Scotia, and Alberta. Ontario and Québec have provincial police forces to do that, however.
High numbers of unfounded sexual assault cases have also been reported by municipal police forces. In March, Metro found more than 2,500 of these cases in Ottawa through a similar data request.
“I have a really hard time commenting on that. The number is what the number is,” Inspector John Maxwell told Metro at the time. “I have to trust in my detectives that they’ve done complete, thorough investigations and that there simply wasn’t enough evidence to lay a charge.”
Smith-Tague said sexual assaults get reported to police less than 10% of the time. Statistics Canada has consistently rated sexual assault the most underreported offence.
"Most of the time, there's little if any benefit for a woman to report her rapist because she knows it's more likely our criminal justice system will believe him over her," Smith-Tague said.
When victims do go to the police, they're often told the case can't go forward because of a lack of witnesses, he-said-she-said scenarios, and other issues, Smith-Tague said.
Smith-Tague says some police forces, such as the Vancouver police, have managed to lower the number of unfounded sexual assaults. She said that means it's "possible for police to find evidence in an investigation if they have enough political will."
The RCMP declined an interview request and has not yet responded to written questions.