In Canada, Ava Williams sues to end police rape myth culture

Ava Williams today

For the past 20 months, The Globe and Mail has been investigating the ways police respond to sexual assault victims. On average, in one in five instances, the police decide that a sexual assault allegation is “unfounded.” Nationally, the rate for physical assault is one in ten. In London, Ontario, a university town, the rate of “unfounding” is 30 percent. One in three sexual assault allegations are rejected out of hand by police. In London, Ontario, less than 2% of physical assault charges are deemed unfounded. Ava Williams knows these mathematics in her bones, and has said, “No!” On Friday, Ava Williams sued the London Police Services Board and Detective Paul Gambriel for violating women’s Constitutional right to equality.

On October 16, 2010, Ava Williams was eighteen years old, a first-year student at Western University, in London, Ontario. She went to a party, got drunk, blacked out, woke up outside, naked, under a tree, and found a man sexually assaulting her. She told him to stop, she said No, he didn’t stop. People came, he ran away, two women came to her aid. They found clothes for her. She said she wanted to go home, and so they put her in a cab and sent her home. When Ava Williams arrived at her dormitory, her parents and the police were notified. She was taken to the hospital for a sexual assault examination. She was interviewed, preliminarily. Then she was sent to police headquarters for the full, and filmed, interview. That began in the early afternoon, twelve hours after the assault. Ava Williams had not slept or eaten, and was hung over. That’s how she was when she met Detective Paul Gambriel.

From the start, Detective Gambriel doubted Ava Williams’s account. He wonders how drunk she really was, how much she does and does not remember, how her clothes could have been removed without being torn. All of this, and more, according to Canadian law, is completely beside the point. Once intoxicated, a person cannot consent. Period. The law be damned, Detective Gambriel insinuated and intimated, and Ava Williams decided not to pursue the case. The police easily found the man who raped Ava Williams, and let him off with a warning. A warning. The case was closed as unfounded.

Later, Ava and her family protested the proceedings. The London Police Service Board investigated Detective Paul Gambriel, and found him innocent of any wrongdoing. Twice over, the case was closed.

Then The Globe and Mail investigated the situation of unfounded sexual assault cases, and highlighted this one. Initially, Ava Williams insisted on a kind of anonymity, only using her first name, but when the series began to run and she saw the response, she decided to come out, say her name fully, Ava Williams, and sue: “I feel like I’m in a place that I can use my voice to help other people.

Unlike an earlier similar case, in the 1990s, that of Jane Doe vs Toronto, Ava Williams is charging more than negligence. She’s protesting the violation of her civil rights as a woman. If she wins, the London Police Service Board will have to adopt the Philadelphia Model, in which advocates audit police case files looking for bias and missteps. According to Elaine Craig, a law professor specializing in sex-assault and constitutional law, “If it was litigated all the way up to the Supreme Court of Canada and the Supreme Court concluded that there was a constitutional obligation on the part of the police to adopt the Philadelphia Model, that would have massive ramifications for police services – that’s shooting for the stars. But I think just bringing a claim of this sort is groundbreaking, regardless of the outcome because … it’s framing the issue as a matter of constitutionality – as a fundamental right.”

Women, as women have a constitutional right to safety and well-being. You know what’s unfounded? 30 percent of sexual assaults are unfounded compared to 2 percent of physical assaults. You know what’s unfounded? That Ava Williams has had to go to heroic lengths to argue for simple decency and equality. You know what’s unfounded? A State that abandons women.

(Photo Credit: The Globe and Mail / Galit Rodan)

Ann Roberts challenges stop-and-search as racist

Good news. Racist stop and frisk isn’t only a New York phenomenon. It happens in London too. In what may become a landmark case, Ann Roberts is hoping to change that.

Ann Roberts is a 38-year old Black woman. She is mother to an 18-year-old son. Until two years ago, she worked as a college special needs assistant. She had never had a run-in with the law … until September 9, 2010.

On September 9, 2010, Ann Roberts was on her way home from work. She was on a bus, when the conductor realized she didn’t have enough money on her fare card. The conductor then demanded to see the contents of her bag, claiming they were in a gang and knife crime hotspot. She asked to be taken to the police station, rather than have the search on the bus, so as to avoid any embarrassment in front of her colleagues and students.

Instead, the police came, and six police officers wrestled her to the floor and pinned her face down, and handcuffed. They searched her purse and found no weapons. Instead, the officers found credit cards with two names, and so charged her with fraud. Roberts explained that she was recently married and hence was in the process of changing over her cards. Despite the truth of her statement, Ann Roberts was taken to the police station, where she was first tested for drugs and charged with fraud, threatened with a crack cocaine charge, and issued a caution for having obstructed an arrest. Her drug test came back negative, and the charge was dropped. The caution was dropped. The fraud charge was dropped. Meanwhile, Ann Roberts spent eight hours behind bars.

Afterwards, Roberts reflected, “One of the officers pulled the chain from around my neck and broke it. It wasn’t valuable but it was the force they used, the action. I ended up with a bleeding right hand and injuries to my arm and shoulder. I had to go to hospital next day.”

Despite being cleared of all charges, Ann Roberts was suspended from her job working with vulnerable young people. She had become a security risk.

Ann Roberts is a Black woman in an urban stop-and-search regime. It’s a story of prime real estate, urban hyper-development, metropolitan growth, and `disposable’ populations. Stop-and-search is not universal. In many parts of the United Kingdom, it almost never occurs. In London, it’s the order of the day. According to one report, a Metropolitan police officer is about 30 times more likely to stop-and-search to stop a black person than a colleague outside London.

Stop-and-search as a means of virtually unregulated control came into force in 1994, under section 60 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994. Originally it was meant to combat football hooliganism and late-night raves. In what some call “mission creep”, the number of section 60 stops went from 7,970 in 1997/98 to 118,112 in 2009/2010. That is no creep. That is a breathtaking leap, especially if one considers these numbers are concentrated in London. Neither creep nor leap, it’s an occupation.

Who’s the target? Black and Asian communities. During 2011, a Black person was 29.7 times more likely to be stopped and searched than a white. Asian people were 7.6 times more likely to be stopped and searched. Every year, the gap has increased. Section 60 is the mapping of Black and Asian communities in London’s metropolitan renewal.

When Ann Roberts was taken down, she said, “Enough is enough.” She spoke the unspeakable truth: she charged section 60 with racism, arguing it is a violation of the European Convention on Human Right. This week, the High Court gave Ann Roberts permission to challenge the legality of powers granted to police under section 60 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994. The struggle continues.

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