On January 24, 2013 Human Rights Watch (HRW) — an independent organization dedicated to defending human rights — published a 196 page report on the Washington D.C. Metropolitan Police Department (MPD). HRW reviewed sexual assault cases handled by the MPD over the 2008-2011 time period. After reading the report I wondered how police responded nationally to incidences of rape and sexual assault. Is the MPD an isolated case, or is it a microcosm for how police departments across the country handle sexual assault?
A closer look at the HRW Report:
Over 150 interviews were conducted for the study, along with data collected from four governmental agencies. HRW originally sought to investigate the MPD due to the low number of sexual assaults it reported to the FBI. HRW was only allowed access to the MPD's case files after a lawsuit compelled them to comply with their information request. The report is separated into several sections, but the main findings of the report cast a dark shadow on the nation's capital.
Despite having sexual assault response systems in place, these systems were rarely followed. HRW says in the report that the procedural manual for how to respond to sexual assault cases is inadequate, and does not include any information for how to handle cases where alcohol or drugs are present, or sexual assault from a non-stranger.
Victims were denied a case number, and in some instances cases simply went missing. There were a number of cases that were coded as, "Office Information," which often meant that there would be no further investigation. This also meant that the victim's name, address and all personal information would be visible. In many sexual assault cases, privacy is granted due to the sensitive nature of the information contained in the report.
According to the MPD's own handbook, each report of sexual assault must get a PD-251 incident report number. No PD-251 was given in 35.4% of the cases when the victim reported to the hospital. The HRW report goes on to say that because many victims do not report to the hospital it is likely that the percent of individuals not given PD-251 numbers is much higher. This is particularly alarming because without a PD-251, a victim would have an incredibly difficult time following up on her charges.
In some instances, victims reports of rape or sexual abuse were downgraded to lesser crimes. In cases involving a home burglary and sexual assault, cases were only classified as a burglary. The downplaying of sexual abuse in some instances meant that the case went from being a felony to a sexual misdemeanor, or sexual misconduct. This, despite there being clear physical evidence that a greater crime took place.
Many of the victims describe their encounters with police as being just as traumatic as the rape or sexual assault itself. Victims were told not to pursue prosecution. In cases were alcohol was present or the crime involved a sex worker, police insensitivity intensified.
An e-mail between two officers helps to shows a general attitude of victim blaming and perpetuation of rape myths:
“I found out you dealt with her about 4 am Friday or Saturday morning ... and she chose not to make a report. Something about a gang bang and being intoxicated.... Anyway, I think it was just an OI [Office Information]. However, she now feels differently and wishes to make a report.... She says her phone isn’t working but she can be reached ... Sorry, BUT IT IS WHAT IT IS!!!!!!!”
The report goes onto to explain in detail how officers were non-responsive, often ignoring victims phone calls or requests for information. Some officers questioned the victims credibility, even going so far as to ask a victim if she was “Only doing this to get immigration status.”
The police officers that make up the Sexual Assault Unit (SAU) are the individuals that respond to all reports of sexual assault. These police officers do not formally undergo any additional training for how to handle these cases.
After HRW sent its initial findings of the report to the MPD they were meant with hostility. The MPD denies that there is any wrong doing or issue with the way sexual assault cases are handled. Those who assisted HRW in collecting information for the report were subject to hostile work environments. Since the report, the Office of Victim Services has asked nurses to sign non-disclosure agreements and cut funding to other organizations that assisted in the fact-finding of the report.
Is the MPD handling of sexual assault isolated? Or are other police departments failing victims of sexual abuse as well?
The problem of untested rape kits at police departments plagues this country. Reports put the numbers somewhere between 180,000-400,000 nationwide. While laws have changed but our attitudes towards victims has not.
A study conducted by HRW showed that 80% of rape kits went untested in Illinois. That was along with an 11% arrest rate for sexual assault, one of the lowest in the country. After the report came out, the Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan was spurred into action, eventually passing one of the first laws in the country that required every rape kit be sent to a lab for testing. But despite this law, the rape kits only have to be tested should their be sufficient staffing and funds available.
Similar pressure was put on Los Angeles County after another HRW report showed a backlog of 12,000 rape kits. Thousands more rape kits were destroyed without testing. The reasoning was due to police discretion over which kits were tested, lack of funds, and a lack of urgency.
For me, the take away from this report is that victim blaming matters, the adherence to rape myths matter and how we view gender effects our ability to address sexual assault, especially without proper training. Police officers hold an incredible amount of power in deciding how far an investigation into sexual assault will go. They determine what resources are devoted and whether or not a case will be submitted to the prosecutor.
It is a systemic problem. It is advantageous to police departments to clear cases as most departments are evaluated on their clearance rates. A clearance rate is the number of cases that are considered to be solved by a law enforcement agency.
“Clearance categories of unfounded and exceptionally cleared are too often used as a ‘dumping ground’ for sexual assault cases that are viewed as dubious or difficult to investigate.”
The study linked to above echoes the findings of the HRW Washington D.C. investigation.
Police officers are also unequipped with how to respond to the majority of rapes or sexual assaults. Training seems to focus on stranger rape, but we know that most rapes and sexual assaults are committed or attempted by persons known to us. This study for the National Institute of Justice articulates the same issues and concerns as the HRW report on D.C. Rape myths, victim blaming, and lack of training all adversely affect the outcomes of police investigation into sexual assault. A lack of training or inexperience went so far as to render some forensic evidence from sexual assault cases as contaminated or otherwise unusable.
The HRW report is clearly highlighting the specific inadequacies of a particular police department. A brief look into similar studies of police departments and detectives that handle sexual assault cases nation wide show similar roadblocks to justice. As first responders and gatekeepers, police officers must be better trained and equipped to deal with allegations of sexual assault. There is no way the United States' current reporting mechanisms allow for an accurate representation of sexual assault in the U.S. There must be sustained pressure from independent organizations and individuals to see change within in a system that is so obviously broken.