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(Washington, DC) – A bill making its way through the DC Council would be a significant step toward improving police response to sexual assault in the District of Columbia. The DC Council unanimously approved the bill, which adopts recommendations Human Rights Watch has been making for over a year, on April 8, 2014. It is scheduled for a second vote on May 6. If passed, it would go to DC Mayor Vincent Grey for his signature.

Among other reforms, the bill would provide for hiring an independent expert consultant to assess and oversee the Metropolitan Police Department’s handling of sexual assault investigations. It also would offer people who report a sexual assault the right to have an advocate present in all interactions with the police, without exception.

“By passing this bill, the DC Council would help to ensure sexual assault victims will have the emotional support they need when they report a sexual assault and that police will take their cases seriously,” said Sara Darehshori, senior counsel in the US Program at Human Rights Watch. “The appointment of an independent expert consultant and increased transparency would bolster public confidence that reforms to the way the police handle sexual assault cases are meaningful and lasting.”

Human Rights Watch documented repeated cases in which MPD officers mistreated sexual assault survivors, or failed to document or investigate their cases properly. Survivors who had reported sexual assault said that police officers questioned their credibility, discouraged them from submitting forensic evidence, or simply didn’t return their calls. When one victim asked a detective if he believed her story, he replied, “I believe you believe this.”

Human Rights Watch noted that 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. It is critical for law enforcement personnel to demonstrate that they can be trusted.

In response to the Human Rights Watch investigation, the Metropolitan Police Department agreed to some reforms, including improved training, changes to their classification of cases, and hiring some additional staff. However, when problems in the handling of sexual assault cases have been exposed in the past, the department’s reforms have failed to address the underlying problems.

Human Rights Watch said that the mechanisms to be established as a result of the DC Council bill will go a long way toward giving survivors confidence that this time their concerns will be addressed. In particular, the appointment of an independent expert consultant charged with reviewing the police department’s response to reports of sexual assault and ensuring that it is based on best practices has the potential to make an enormous difference for survivors. Human Rights Watch said that the DC Council and Judiciary Committee Chairman Tommy Wells deserved credit for tackling these concerns head on.

“If implemented properly, the DC Council bill is an opportunity to turn what has been a bad situation for survivors of sexual assault into a model for the rest of the country,” Darehshori said.

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