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DC Police Improving Their Response to Sexual Assault Victims

Staff Added, Detectives Supervised More Closely

Although the man held a knife to her throat when he tried to rape her, Eleanor managed to escape. When she reported the attack to Washington DC’s Metropolitan Police, she thought the worst was over – but that was before the police refused to consider the attack an “attempted sexual assault.” Nothing she said could convince them otherwise. She felt betrayed by the people whose job it was to protect her, and she lost her faith in law enforcement. Eleanor also worried that her attacker might assault more women who, unlike her, may not be lucky enough to escape. 

For nearly two years, Human Rights Watch investigated how Washington DC’s Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) handles sexual assault cases like Eleanor’s. The MPD responded to our findings, laid out in the report Capitol Offense, by changing certain aspects of its sexual assault investigations.  Because of these improvements, today’s assault survivors have a better chance of being taken seriously by police.

But more changes are needed to secure justice for the victims.

For our report, Human Rights Watch conducted 150 interviews with sexual assault survivors, community advocates who work with survivors, and hospital staff specializing in sexual trauma. We also reviewed thousands of pages of documents from government agencies, including 250 of the MPD’s internal files on sex abuses cases.

We found that Eleanor’s story is not unique.

More than 40 percent of reported sexual assault cases in which survivors underwent forensic exams were not properly investigated. In many cases, the police did not file incident reports–a necessary first step to opening an investigation–so leads were never pursued. Many victims reported to police that someone had tried to rape or sexually assault them, only to learn that the police hadn’t considered their case a crime or misclassified what had happened to them as a lesser, nonsexual crime. 

This was what happened in Eleanor’s case. Because her attacker had been unsuccessful in his attempt to rape her, the incident was classified as “robbery with arms.” This creates a dangerous precedent of not pursuing sexual aggressors who are likely to harm other women, especially if they got away with it once.

Sexual assault is the most underreported violent crime in the US, largely because victims fear their cases will not be taken seriously or that police will not believe them. Unfortunately, this fear appears to be well-founded for many people we interviewed. Women told us police questioned their credibility, discouraged them from submitting forensic evidence, or simply didn’t return their calls. When one victim asked the officer if he believed her story, he replied, “I believe you believe this.”

We hope our report will change this. Before it was released in January, we shared our findings with the MPD. In response, they agreed to add more staff to their sexual assault and victims services units and do a better job of supervising detectives. They reminded officers they must document all sexual assault complaints. Since then, the number of rapes reported in DC has increased dramatically. 

Now we are urging the MPD to allow sexual assault victims to have an advocate present for police interviews. We are also pressing for external review of police investigation files – a measure that has greatly improved police handling of sexual assault cases in Philadelphia.

In Washington, DC, we still have more work to do to secure justice for victims. The MPD has tried to discredit our report in the media and to deny the problem, though they have provided no information to back up these claims. Meanwhile, as people learned about the report, more survivors have come forward with their stories asking to help. 

The DC City Council sought outside counsel to look into the situation. In July, the outside counsel will release recommendations, which we hope will echo ours. No one who has been raped or sexually assaulted should be rebuffed when they report the crime to the police. These victims deserve better. Human Rights Watch will continue to fight on their behalf.

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