(Washington, DC) – 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.
The following are some of the key findings of the Human Rights Watch investigation:
The MPD failed to document entirely, or closed without investigation, many complaints of sexual assault.
Under MPD policy, all sexual assault complaints must be documented in an “incident report,” an essential first step to open an investigation. Human Rights Watch compared records of police reports from Washington Hospital Center, the only DC metro area hospital charged with conducting forensic exams for sexual assaults, to incident reports at the Metropolitan Police Department between October 2008 and September 2011.
Human Rights Watch was unable to locate an incident report for 170 victims – 35.6 percent – whom the hospital had recorded as reporting a sexual assault to the police. In an effort to locate the missing records, Human Rights Watch also searched the department’s internal database, reviewed all database records for cases with no case numbers during that time period, and asked the MPD to locate the missing records, providing a period of several months for the search. Any new records produced are included in this analysis.
Several of the cases the MPD did document were closed with minimal or no investigation.
Of the Washington Hospital Center cases reviewed, an additional 34 cases – 7 percent – did have incident reports, but the MPD had classified them as for “office information only,” which under department policy means that a case is “effectively closed.”
A review of incident reports and investigative files also revealed that cases that were documented were sometimes closed with minimal investigation, or were misclassified as lesser crimes. Information gathered by Human Rights Watch shows that cases in which the victim has been drinking alcohol and has an unclear recollection of events are most likely to be disregarded by police, despite the fact that alcohol or other substances are often involved in sexual assault cases.
“The detectives’ role is to impartially investigate all cases – not pass judgment on a victim who has turned to them for help,” Darehshori said. “Even if the case is ultimately not prosecuted, no victim should feel worse after going to the police.”
MPD officers mistreated victims of sexual assault.
Sexual assault survivors interviewed by Human Rights Watch, community members and medical staff who work with victims, and in some cases, police reports themselves described inappropriate behavior by law enforcement personnel. In some cases, police questioned survivors’ credibility and actively discouraged victims from reporting or providing forensic evidence. Human Rights Watch heard that law enforcement personnel threatened victims with prosecution if they were found to be lying, asked questions that implied that the victims were to blame, and told victims their stories were not serious enough to investigate. In other cases, the police failed to keep victims informed of progress on their cases. The ill-treatment of victims is damaging to investigations. It is also contrary to police policy, which calls on detectives to treat victims with sensitivity.
Not all detectives treat victims poorly, and some medical staff and prosecutors report that some detectives who treat victims well may not get the credit they deserve. However, the breadth of the observations raises concerns about longstanding institutional tolerance of inappropriate behavior and the lack of training for sexual assault unit detectives.
Since being notified of the report’s findings on May 30, 2012, the MPD has implemented a number of Human Rights Watch’s recommendations, undertaking policy changes to increase supervision of detectives. It has also added staff members to the sexual assault and victim services units. These are positive steps.
However, policies have long existed requiring that all sex abuse cases be documented and investigated and requiring sensitivity to the needs of victims. The central problem has been with implementation of those policies and departmental practice that would appear not to treat these cases appropriately.
Human Rights Watch has kept the MPD informed of the investigation and its findings for over 20 months, including with two detailed letters describing its findings, in May and December 2012, as well as in meetings. It also provided the department with a full copy of the embargoed report on January 17, along with a letter and fact sheet addressing in detail various critical comments that Chief Cathy Lanier has made about the Human Rights Watch investigation.
To ensure that all reports of sexual assault are properly investigated and that victims are treated with dignity, the DC Mayor and City Council should create an independent oversight mechanism.
This entity should ensure that detectives and patrol officers are properly trained in interviewing trauma victims, that sexual assault complaints are effectively investigated, and that detectives who do not adhere to policies or are the subject of repeated complaints are held to account and transferred from the unit. In Philadelphia, a similar mechanism has operated successfully for a decade, following revelations that sexual assault cases there were often being misclassified.
“Treating victims with respect and dignity when they report a sexual assault to police can make an enormous difference in a victim’s recovery,” Darehshori said. “It is a goal that should be shared with victims and advocates by those sworn to protect and serve the community.”
The following are quotes from rape survivors, advocates, police officers, and medical personnel interviewed by Human Rights Watch or contained in documents Human Rights Watch reviewed. Victims’ names have been abbreviated or replaced with pseudonyms to protect their privacy.
“By failing to classify the crime committed against me as an attempted rape or sexual assault, by ignoring my account of the story, you condemn me to a life where I mistrust the police, abandon any faith I possessed in the criminal justice system, and you have caused me more victimization than the actual perpetrator of the crime committed against me. Moreover, you fail the community you have sworn to protect….”
– Letter to MPD Chief Cathy Lanier from Eleanor G., survivor of a 2011 attempted sexual assault, October 4, 2011
“Reporting to the police was far more traumatizing than the rape itself.”
– Susan D., after reporting a sexual assault in March 2011