Each week seems to bring news of sexual assaults being handled badly by college campuses across the country. I just received an email from my own alma mater, Brown University, reassuring its alumni that the attacker in a recent case will not, in fact, be returning to campus in the fall. It did so after the survivor, unhappy with how the school handled her case, went public.
The White House has issued recommendations to colleges and universities to improve their response to sexual assault on their campuses. This brings much-needed constructive attention to the issue. However, one essential piece of the problem has been largely absent from the discussion: the response of local police.
One of the most effective ways to deter sexual assaults is for police to investigate these cases seriously -- and then for prosecutors to effectively prosecute them. Nothing brings home the consequences of criminal activity like being held accountable under the law. Yet this rarely occurs.
When I began investigating police handling of sexual assault cases in the United States, I was interested in whether police were more likely to disregard cases from certain marginalized groups -- sex workers, disabled people, racial or ethnic minorities. I was surprised to find that university students, a relatively affluent and privileged group, were among the most likely to be treated badly by police. One police officer told a former colleague that they "only investigated serious crimes on campus," i.e. not rape. In New Orleans, when I asked a local expert about marginalized groups, students were the first group that came up.
In the District of Columbia, where my research was focused, I found a similar pattern. Most of the survivors I talked to who were traumatized by their treatment by police were university students at the time of their attack. Over and over again I heard, "If they treat me like this, and I am educated and have resources, I can't imagine how others are being treated." Indeed, in January, the George Washington University newspaper reported that the D.C. police department could locate official police reports for only 17 of 76 (22 percent) sexual assault complaints made on campus between 2009 and 2013.
Part of the issue was the apparent tendency by the police to dismiss cases involving alcohol. Over half the sexual assault complaints we saw that police classified as "miscellaneous" and closed at the time of the report were cases in which the victims had consumed alcohol -- a factor in many, though not all, campus assaults.
The fact is, most sexual assault cases involve drugs or alcohol. And the attackers are often confident that no one will believe an inebriated victim. Unfortunately, they're too often right: Some police detectives may not view these cases as "legitimate" because they do not necessarily involve "stranger danger" or violent force. But these sexual assaults can have a devastating effect on the victim. As one survivor told me: "The way people react to rape isn't fair. If my purse was stolen it wouldn't be my fault. I was shattered, and I didn't have a violent assault."
Cases involving drugs or alcohol may be challenging to investigate if the victim is impaired. But that makes it all the more important to conduct a thorough investigation to put the evidence together. The cost of ignoring these cases is high -- not only because it gives attackers a green light, but also because of the impact on the victim. Studies show a poor response by authorities greatly increases the victim's chances of developing post-traumatic stress disorder. The police should be helping victims, not adding to their trauma.
Fortunately, a good model exists for improving law enforcement practices. On May 6, the District of Columbia's legislative body, the DC Council, passed legislation that provides victims with the right to an advocate during police interviews, establish a regular case-review process involving advocates and nurses, establish a Task Force to review policies, and require review by an independent expert to help ensure reforms are more than on paper and are actually carried out.
Efforts to ensure transparency and accountability for police handling of sexual assault cases should be included as part of efforts to seriously examine response to all sexual assaults, not just those that occur on campus. The White House should expand its recommendations to cover response to all sexual assaults as well.
The Washington, D.C., reforms should go a long way toward ensuring that D.C. police properly investigate all rape complaints and treat victims with compassion and respect. Victims throughout the nation deserve no less.