Victims of sexual assault in Washington, DC, are not getting the effective response they deserve and should expect from the district’s Metropolitan Police Department (MPD), Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. Sexual assault cases are too often not properly documented or investigated and victims may face callous, traumatizing treatment, despite official departmental policy to the contrary.
The 196-page report, “Capitol Offense: Police Mishandling of Sexual Assault Cases in the District of Columbia,” concludes that in many sexual assault cases, the police did not file incident reports, which are required to proceed with an investigation, or misclassified serious sexual assaults as lesser or other crimes. Human Rights Watch also found that the police presented cases to prosecutors for warrants that were so inadequately investigated that prosecutors had little choice but to refuse them and that procedural formalities were used to close cases with only minimal investigation. The mayor and City Council should create an independent mechanism to monitor police department response to sexual assault complaints.
“Sexual assault is the most underreported violent crime in the US, largely because many victims fear that their cases will not be taken seriously and that police will not believe them,” said Sara Darehshori, senior counsel in the US Program at Human Rights Watch and the author of the report. “Unfortunately, for some victims in DC who bravely came forward and reported their assaults, those fears were realized.”
Over the course of the 22-month investigation, Human Rights Watch conducted 150 interviews with sexual assault survivors, community groups, victims’ advocates, hospital staff, and university counselors, among others. In addition, Human Rights Watch collected documents from four government agencies and reviewed over 250 internal investigative files for sex abuse cases at the MPD headquarters. Human Rights Watch also searched MPD’s internal database, the Washington Area Criminal Intelligence Information System (WACIIS), for missing police reports.
The review of investigative files was part of a settlement agreement resulting from a lawsuit Human Rights Watch brought after the MPD failed to produce documents requested under the Freedom of Information Act.
Human Rights Watch reviewed dates of all sexual assault reports made at Washington Hospital Center, where sexual assault victims are sent for forensic examinations, and compared them to sexual assault cases opened by the police department between October 2008 and September 2011. More than 200 cases, or over 40 percent of cases reviewed, appear never to have been documented or properly investigated.
Some sexual assault survivors described to Human Rights Watch callous treatment by police officers, who, they said, openly questioned their credibility and minimized the severity of their experiences. Human Rights Watch also checked these case files.
“To hear him tell me he didn’t believe me was a slap in my face,” one rape survivor told Human Rights Watch. “It just took the air right out of me. And where do you go from there when the policeman tells you he doesn’t believe you?”
The problems documented in the report are, for the most part, not the result of official departmental policy, Human Rights Watch found. On the contrary, in many cases, detectives were flouting the department’s policy. And while the MPD has instituted some reforms in recent years for procedures in sexual assault cases, many of the problems Human Rights Watch identified persisted after initial reforms were instituted in 2008.
More broadly, the crux of the problem lies not in policy but in a failure by the police to respond with sufficient seriousness and sensitivity to sexual assault complaints.
“Police policies are not really the problem – police practice is,” Darehshori said. “Ensuring that reforms are effectively put into practice requires external oversight and a sustained commitment by leadership to change the culture of the department.”
Until that happens, there is a serious risk that the MPD will continue to mishandle many sexual assault cases, causing many traumatized victims further suffering and deterring others from coming forward at all. At the same time, the attackers will escape accountability for their crimes.
– Susan D., after reporting a sexual assault in March 2011
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