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Police Mishandling of Sexual Assault Cases In

Police Mishandling of Sexual Assault Cases In

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Published by Peggy Satterfield

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Published by: Peggy Satterfield on Feb 10, 2013
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In cities that have instituted reforms, there has been a strong focus on encouraging victims

to report their crimes. The captain of the Philadelphia Special Victims Unit stressed that

reporting numbers for rape and sexual assault remain low and getting people to report is

something they are “battling every day.”691


Grand Rapids, Austin, Kansas City, and Washington, D.C were among eight US cities involved in the Making a Difference
(MAD) Project, an initiative in which multidisciplinary teams from each city worked together to establish new national
standards for effectively investigating and prosecuting sexual assault. The project was implemented and supported by End
Violence Against Women International (EVAWI).


Human Rights Watch interview with Captain John Darby and Commissioner Charles Ramsey, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania,

November 1, 2011.



Police departments use various methods to encourage reports, ranging from protocols

allowing people to provide information to police about sexual assault without recording

identifying information (“blind reporting”) to public awareness campaigns.

In Austin, Texas, victims are permitted to use a pseudonym on all medical and legal

documents associated with the case because “it gives the victim a choice about whether

she wants people to know she is a survivor.”692

In Grand Rapids, in early 2011, the police

department implemented a blind reporting policy allowing victims to report anonymously

either indirectly (by

filling out a form and

writing his or her own

statement and sending

it to the Grand Rapids

Police Department) or

directly (if the victim

meets with the detective

to explain what

happened but does not share identifying information.)693

Sergeant Rogers of the Grand

Rapids Police Department explained that the advantage of this is that the police are made

aware of a suspect’s characteristics or name so if another related case arises, they may be

able to persuade the anonymous victim to come forward.694

In addition, it gives victims

more control by providing those who are unsure about whether to report an option

between reporting and not reporting.695

Kansas City and Austin both participate in the “Start by Believing” public outreach

campaign, which aims to improve the response of friends, family members, professionals,

and other support people to a victim’s first disclosure of sexual assault to help victims get

the support they need and encourage reporting.


Sgt. Joanne Archambault, Dr. Kimberly Lonsway, and EVAWI, “Reporting Methods for Sexual Assault Cases,” July 2007, pp. 13-15.


Human Rights Watch interview with Patti Haist, director of clinical services, and Chris Dunnuck, nurse coordinator, YWCA,
Grand Rapids, Michigan, July 23, 2012.


Human Rights Watch interview with Sergeant Kristen Rogers, Grand Rapids, Michigan, July 26, 2012.


Ibid; Human Rights Watch interview with Patti Haist and Chris Dunnuck, July 23, 2012.

Another survey of 891 officers in two southeastern states

showed 53 percent of respondents believed 10 to 50

percent of victims lied about being raped and another 10

percent thought 51-100 percent of women gave false

reports of rape. In fact, studies show only 2-10 percent of

rape cases are false. Overcoming skepticism is essential to

improving police response.



Encouraging reporting has little impact without efforts to improve police responsiveness.

Unfortunately, throughout the US, many police remain highly skeptical of victims. A survey

as recent as 2010 showed that over half of detectives with less than 7 years of experience,

interviewed in 16 police departments believed that 40 to 80 percent of sexual assault

complaints were false.696

Another survey of 891 officers in two southeastern states showed

53 percent of respondents believed 10 to 50 percent of victims lied about being raped and

another 10 percent thought 51-100 percent of women gave false reports of rape.697

In fact,

studies show only 2-10 percent of rape cases are false.698

Overcoming skepticism is

essential to improving police response.

The attitude conveyed by law enforcement can be “the single most important factor in

determining the success of the victim interview—and therefore the entire investigation,”

according to a manual about investigating sexual assaults.699

A Model Policy published by

the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) stresses the importance of officers’

and investigators’ (detectives’) attitudes towards victims in ensuring the latters’

cooperation and ability to cope with the emotional effects of the crime.700

Detectives should be trained to reassure the victim that they are not there to judge, and that

nothing the victim did gave the suspect permission to sexually assault them.701

As one Kansas

City detective remarked to Human Rights Watch, “They need to understand that we get it.” 702

Detectives can explain to victims the importance of not withholding any information so that

their credibility is not questioned later. In Austin, Grand Rapids, and Kansas City, the

detective or advocate makes a point of explaining to the victim that people often leave


Martin D. Schwartz, “National Institute of Justice Visiting Fellowship: Police Investigation of Rape –Roadblocks and
Solutions,” Doc. No. 232667, US Department of Justice Number 2003-IJ-CX-1027, December 2010.


Amy Dellinger Page, “Gateway to Reform? Policy Implications of Police Officers’ Attitudes toward Rape,” American Journal
of Criminal Justice, vol. 33, no. 1, May 2008, pp. 44-58.


David Lisak et al., “False Allegations of Sexual Assault: An Analysis of Ten Years of Reported Cases,” Violence Against
Women, December 16, 2010, pp. 1318-34 (finding a false report rate of 5.9 percent over a 10 year study of reported sexual
assaults at a major northeastern university).


EVAWI, “Interviewing the Victim,” May 2007, p 6.


IACP, “Investigating Sexual Assaults Model Policy,” July 2005.


EVAWI, “Interviewing the Victim,” May 2007, pp. 25-26; see also San Diego Police Department, Sex Crimes Unit Standard
Operating Procedures (SOP), April 10, 2002, p. 1-13, on file at Human Rights Watch.


Human Rights Watch group interview with Kansas City SART (including Detective Catherine Johnson, Kansas City Police
Department), Kansas City, Missouri, July 22, 2011.



things out and it is better to know everything—even unflattering or illegal behavior—upfront,

while also reassuring the victim that he or she is not at fault and will not be judged.703

Philadelphia, Kansas City, and Austin all have policies not to charge the victim with illegal

behavior that happened around the assault (unless it is absolutely necessary given the

seriousness of the offense), and make it clear that the victim will not be arrested for

offenses like illicit drug use or underage drinking.704

Experts strenuously object to

threatening victims implicitly or explicitly with charges for false reporting.705

In Austin, the

head of the Sex Crimes Unit eliminated a requirement that victims sign a perjury statement

before beginning an interview because it conveyed suspicion toward victims that was

likely to make them feel uncomfortable and less willing to participate.706

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