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)

What will be our King trial?

As a teenager, I remember listening, watching, and wondering about the outcome of the Rodney King criminal trial. When the jury acquitted three of the four Los Angeles Police Department officers, and couldn’t determine guilt or innocence of the fourth officer, I felt anger, loss, and hopelessness. The riots that ensued in the greater Los Angeles area, although horrific, seemed justified in my teenage mind. A black man, savagely beaten by four white officers, all caught on candid camera.  An injustice unpunished.

Flash forward to 2009. Two then-New York Police Department (NYPD) police officers were called to assist a taxi cab driver with a drunk female passenger. The police officers assisted the female to her apartment, and then one of them allegedly raped her, while the other stood guard. Last week, a jury acquitted both police officers of sexual misconduct and falsifying business records. This verdict comes on the heels of the International Monetary Fund’s then-Director Dominique Strauss-Kahn’s arrest and arraignment of committing several sex crimes towards a hotel maid.

As a lawyer representing sexual assault survivors in civil legal court, I have profound respect for the theoretical implications bolstering the legal system. Yet, in practical terms, the justice system seems unfair in sexual assault cases where, unlike in other cases, victims are met with profound skepticism by the trier of fact. Indeed, as one juror mentioned after the NYPD trial, the need for physical evidence that a rape occurred – which isn’t necessary in all criminal cases to reach the government’s burden of “beyond a reasonable doubt” – is often the linchpin.

What makes the Rodney King trial and the NYPD Rape trial interesting is a common thread: both victims were highly intoxicated. With the NYPD Rape trial, the questions were always “where is the DNA,” and “how can we believe a woman who doesn’t remember.” With King, the looming question was “is this a just way to act.”

To me, these are strikingly different questions to crimes where police abuse and power had similar lasting physical and emotional effects on the victims and the community at-large..

The acquittal of abusing a man, turned into race riots. It became a symbol of those in power versus those not in power, abuse of authority, police brutality, and historical implications of slavery.

The acquittal of raping a woman turned into social networking outrage, with petition, Twitter and Facebook posts, a protest in front of NYC’s courthouse, and an attitude that this is another trial added to the long master list where the victim’s credibility was questioned and then destroyed, with the perpetrator walking away with nothing but a bruised ego.

Although I condemn riots and strongly believe in non-violence, I ask, where is our, female, feminist King-like response to this trial? Where are the boycotts, the outward anger and rage? Where are the speeches, the opinion pieces, and the gobbling of media airtime?

More importantly, where are the leaders of this movement who are willing to step forward and say enough is enough already?

Like the King trial shaped my understanding of the world, I wonder if and how the NYPD Rape trial is shaping the views of our youth.

(Photo Credit: The Villager / Jefferson Siegel)