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Norfolk Police Rape Policy Deemed Reports 'Unfounded,' But Outrage Forces Change

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The Norfolk (Va.) Police Department recently updated its policies on handling sexual assault cases. | Getty

What started out as a Virginia woman's attempt to report a rape turned into a victim's worst nightmare when police doubted her story and accused her of lying.

Following the apprehension and sentencing of her rapist, however, the woman's experience has forced her local police department to change the way it addresses sexual assault cases.

Last week, Norfolk Police Chief Mike Goldsmith announced the updates to his department's policy. These changes include allowing rape crisis advocates to sit in on interviews, emphasizing the need for rape kits, and no longer classifying all rape cases as "unfounded" by default, The Virginian-Pilot reports.

The department faced heavy criticism after The Pilot ran a series of articles and editorials detailing the troubling treatment of the 22-year-old rape victim last year. According to the outlet, Norfolk investigators accused the woman of lying, aggressively interrogated her about small changes in her story and even whispered, "If we find out that you're lying, this will be a felony charge."

The woman ultimately walked out of the interview, and her case was dropped. Police initially defended their actions in a statement to The Pilot in May 2012:

The female complainant/victim became uncooperative after giving her statement regarding an alleged incident of sexual assault. She told detectives she no longer wanted to continue with the investigation. The case was closed as a result.

However, two months later, the victim spotted her attacker's mugshot in connection to a series of rapes in nearby Virginia Beach. Roy Ruiz Loredo has since been sentenced to 36 years in prison for the assaults.

Despite that only 2 percent to 8 percent of rape allegations turn out to be false, Norfolk is not the first police department to come under fire for its treatment of rape victims.

In June, for example, a Washington woman filed suit against the Lynnwood police department alleging investigators had pressured her into recanting a 2008 sexual assault, The Herald reports. The victim's case was reopened in 2011 after new evidence came to light, and serial rapist Marc O'Leary was charged with the crime.

Part of the problem is that officers often do not realize how trauma can affect a victim's recollection of an assault, according to Tom Tremblay, a former investigator in a Vermont sex crimes unit who now helps victims and police communicate with each other.

Speaking with Slate Magazine in June, Tremblay and his colleague David Lisak, a clinical psychologist and forensic consultant , explained police may actually make the situation worse by antagonizing disoriented victims or misreading unconventional emotional cues.

Ultimately, the "improper unfounding of cases" leads not to only to sexual predators remaining free, but it also creates distrust of law enforcement, "the undercounting of sexual assault crimes, and reduced levels of resources for investigation of sexual assault crimes and less assistance to victims," according to a 2012 report from the Police Executive Research Forum.

(h/t Raw Story)

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