3 Ways Police Screw Up Science When Investigating Rape

Anyone with a passing interest in the politics of 2012 will recall the drivel spewed by the likes of Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock on so-called "scientific" facts about rape. Ironically, though, there IS recent scientific work that has provided us with valuable information on rape, most notably in the areas of ascertaining the credibility of victim reports and tracking down the actual perpetrators of sexual assaults. Unfortunately, that science is being woefully underutilized, as outlined in the three points listed below.

1. Advances in neurobiology explain why rape victims may respond in ways that make it seem like they're lying, regardless of whether or not that is actually the case:

Thanks to imaging technology, scientists have learned that victims of traumatic experiences often experience a temporary impairment of the prefrontal cortex of their brains, which is instrumental in forming memories and recalling information. Because their cognitive processes instead become controlled by the amygdala, which records emotional experiences, trauma victims will frequently recall their ordeals through fragments of sensory information. This results in rape victims being unable to provide the kind of straightforward narratives which police interrogators often demand when collecting information. As a recent article in Slate magazine explained, coherent accounts of rape attacks can be culled when victims are asked to recall tactile, aural, and olfactory information, which can then be studied to uphold its veracity or uncover inconsistencies. Unfortunately, it is very common for officers to instead demand linear stories, which given the functioning of the victim's brain at the time of the alleged incidents is often impossible to provide. Even worse, behaviors that are believed to reveal dishonesty — such as uncontrollably smiling and laughing during interrogation or maintaining a flat, unemotional affect — are actually normal psychological responses to the immediate aftermath of a trauma. As a result, many rape victims are dismissed as liars for reasons that science clearly shows have nothing to do with their credibility. This is despite the fact that ...

2. Methodologically rigorous studies have found that only a small (albeit not inconsequential) fraction of rape reports are false:

The primary challenge in estimating the percentage of false rape claims, as a study by the National Center for the Prosecution of Violence Against Women points out, lies in separating cases which were pursued or dismissed based primarily on police hunches (which are heavily susceptible to observer bias and thus scientifically unsound) from those that have been subjected to a "thorough, evidence-based investigation." While the report emphasizes that it is impossible to ever know with certainty the precise number of erroneous charges, "estimates narrow to the range of 2-8% when they are based on more rigorous research of case classifications using specific criteria and incorporating various protections of the reliability and validity of the research." In other words, based on the most reliable data available to us, anywhere from 46-out-of-50 to 49-out-of-50 alleged rape victims are telling the truth. Such sobering statistics underscore the moral imperative facing law enforcement to follow up on rape allegations as swiftly and proactively as possible. Indeed, because even one false rape charge is enough to warrant heavy caution against overzealous pursuit of alleged offenders, the 1-out-of-50 to 4-out-of-50 innocent defendants deserve the scientific means that can exonerate them just as much as the real rape victims. This is important because ...

3. The scientific means that do exist are neglected to a shocking degree:

Back in 2004, a Justice Department report found that at least 221,000 rape kits had been left unprocessed by police departments which claimed to lack the resources necessary to analyze them. Although the Debbie Smith Act was passed shortly thereafter to provide law enforcement with the funds they said they required, the $151 million in annual financing was usually diverted to other purposes, so that experts today believe the number of untested rape kits has reached at least 400,000. As websites like EndtheBacklog.org make clear, the consequences of our legal system's dereliction are devastating. When rape kits are actually utilized, prosecution of cases is often prompt and effective, as the kits avail forensic scientists of the advantages of modern DNA technology by providing "detailed instructions for the examiner, forms for documenting the procedure and evidence gathered, tubes and containers for blood and urine samples, paper bags for collecting clothing and other physical evidence, swabs for biological evidence collection, a large sheet of paper on which the victim undresses to collect hairs and fibers, dental floss and wooden sticks for fingernail scrapings, glass slides, sterile water and saline, [and] envelopes, boxes and labels for each of the various stages of the exam." Because they so frequently fail to receive follow up, however, "the crime of rape has a 24% arrest rate" while "a rapist has a 74% chance of getting away with the crime."

It doesn't take any courage to denounce rape as heinous. In these politically correct times, denunciations of sexual objectification and expressions of sympathy for assault victims have become cliche. Yet while it is easy to take for granted that most people are on the right side of a moral question that is so clearly black-and-white, societies are judged not by the platitudes they spout, but by the policies they pursue. Given that the science exists to help us better determine the credibility of rape claims and effectively prosecute offenders, there is no reason for us to continue experiencing problems in these areas. If we truly grasped rape for the abhorrent epidemic that it is, we would have already fully availed ourselves of these resources in technology and knowledge. Our failure to do so is one of the great shameful facts of this era.

How much do you trust the information in this article?

Matthew Rozsa

is a Ph.D. student in history at Lehigh University as well as a political columnist. His editorials have been published in "The Morning Call," "The Express-Times," "The Newark Star-Ledger," "The Baltimore Sun," and various college newspapers and blogs. I actively encourage people to reach out to me at matt.rozsa@gmail.com.

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