January 24, 2013


This report is based on more than 150 telephone or in-person interviews, as well as documents produced for Human Rights Watch by the District of Columbia Metropolitan Police Department (MPD), the Office of Victims Services (OVS) in the Executive Office of the Mayor of the District of Columbia, which oversees the Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner (SANE) Program at Washington Hospital Center (WHC), and other government agencies in response to public records requests. 

Interviews in Washington D.C. and other major cities (for comparison purposes) were conducted with: sexual assault survivors, current or former police chiefs or commissioners, heads or former heads of sex crimes units, forensic nurses and former forensic nurses, national experts on police responses to sexual violence, rape victim advocates, sex crimes detectives, police officers, staff of sexual assault service organizations, doctors who work with sexual assault victims, university staff who work closely with assault survivors on campus, a judge, a defense attorney, a forensic toxicology expert, sex crimes prosecutors, attorneys representing sexual assault victims, government officials, counselors, journalists who have covered police handling of sexual assault cases in the District of Columbia and elsewhere, and staff of several local community organizations who work in some way with sexual assault survivors, including 10 community organizations in the District of Columbia. 

Unless otherwise specified, the witnesses and victims interviewed all described incidents that occurred since the opening in October 2008 of the SANE program at Washington Hospital Center, the designated hospital for care of adult sexual assault victims in the District. SANE has seen service for sexual assault victims expand from one trained forensic nurse to a dozen certified forensic nurse examiners who are on-call 24 hours a day. The nurse examiners have extensive training in how to provide medical, forensic, and emotional care to sexual assault victims.

Most interviews were conducted individually and in private. Four group interviews were conducted: one with sexual assault survivors, another with volunteer advocates, and two with Sexual Assault Response Teams (SART) in Philadelphia and Kansas City (which have re-examined their approach to sexual assault cases in the past decade). No incentive or remuneration was offered to interviewees. Two interviews were conducted through email. An American Sign Language interpreter was used for two interviews.

Given the sensitive nature of the topic and confidentiality concerns expressed by many interviewees, all survivors’ names and other identifying details, such as the precise date and location of the interview, have been withheld, unless they specifically asked to be identified. All initials are randomly assigned pseudonyms. In some instances, the date of the interview has been changed to protect the identity of the source.

Some interviewees who work closely with law enforcement are identified in this report with pseudonyms due to their concerns that their comments would jeopardize relationships with police and negatively impact their ability to provide services to victims. However, not everyone was comfortable being interviewed, even with use of a pseudonym. Indeed, one expert in the field noted that an unanticipated result of the move to have law enforcement work more closely with community groups that support victims is that it has silenced potential critics of police behavior. Following the June 8 police response to our letter, a number of sources expressed additional concern about protecting their identities, so in some cases more general descriptions of their occupations have been used to obscure their identities.

In addition to interviews, we submitted document requests under the District of Columbia Freedom of Information Act to the MPD, the OVS, the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner for the District of Columbia, and the Office of Police Complaints.

The Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, the OVS, and the Office of Police Complaints cooperated fully with our requests for information about toxicology reports, number of people seeking sexual assault kits, and complaints about police handling of sexual assault cases.

The MPD initially failed to provide a complete or timely response to our request for information about policies and procedures relating to sexual assault, training materials, call records, and investigative material. The MPD’s response took over 12 months and excluded all investigative files relating to sexual assault apart from public incident report forms. After receiving our May 30, 2012, letter outlining our findings, and as this report was being prepared for press, the police supplemented their response with information that had been erroneously excluded from their initial response, but still did not include investigative files. That information was incorporated into the report and data analysis.

As part of its research, Human Rights Watch also reviewed deposition transcripts and discovery material from a 2008 civil lawsuit that had been brought against the MPD. Transcripts included testimony from a sexual assault survivor, a family member, a sergeant responsible for a squad of patrol officers, three patrol officers, and two detectives and two detective sergeants (supervisors) from the MPD’s Sexual Assault Unit (SAU). Some of those deposed have since been removed from the SAU and in August 2011, the MPD put in place a new policy for handling adult sexual assault cases. However, as noted above, the incidents described in this report primarily occurred between late 2008 and November 2011, when the primary research for this report concluded, after the time that the MPD indicates it undertook a number of reforms to address issues revealed in the police depositions. 

Human Rights Watch also reviewed academic studies on the prevalence of sexual assault, incidence of false reporting, the effect of law enforcement’s response on survivors and the incidence of re-traumatization, the effect of having advocates present during police interviews, and the toxicology of drugs used to facilitate sexual assaults. 

Finally, Human Rights Watch reviewed 10 training manuals and model policies for law enforcement handling sexual assault cases on issues such as interviewing techniques, reporting methods, and clearance methods.

On May 30, 2012, Human Rights Watch met with members of the MPD including Commander George Kucik, Lieutenant Pamela Burkett-Jones, Sergeant Ronald Keith Reed, and Tyria Fields, Program Manager for Victim Services. Information from that meeting is incorporated into this report.

At the meeting, Human Rights Watch notified the department of the findings in the report, provided a written summary of its contents, and gave the MPD an opportunity to respond.

In the following months, the police provided over 1000 incident reports, which we have incorporated into our data analysis.[81] The police also provided written responses to the summary of the report on June 8 and on September 14. The substance of these responses, as well as comments made by Chief Cathy Lanier to Human Rights Watch by telephone in response to the summary of our findings on June 1, have been incorporated into this report. The MPD chose to publish HRW’s summary findings as of May 30 along with its response on their website on June 8.

In its June 8 written response to Human Rights Watch, the MPD identified a victim by name who had not wished to be identified publicly (and who Human Rights Watch, in its letter, had not identified). When Human Rights Watch discovered that the MPD had posted its response on its website, including the victim’s name, we requested that the victim’s name be redacted out of concern for her privacy. In response, Chief Lanier wrote,


MPD cannot accommodate this request at this time. HRW used this pre-reform (2006) case as an illustration of the current state of affairs at MPD. MPD feels that it is necessary that the public be given an opportunity to research this matter for themselves (using public information), so they can put this allegation in proper context. Transparency is a two way street.[82]

The MPD complained that it was given inadequate time to respond to the report. However, the MPD has been aware of Human Rights Watch’s investigation for over a year. Human Rights Watch notified MPD about its research in April 2011 and requested cooperation during the year in correspondence with MPD lawyers.

Shortly after we initiated this investigation, on May 6, 2011, the OVS informed us that Chief Lanier had requested contact information for this report’s researcher. Human Rights Watch provided contact information immediately, yet there was no follow-up from the MPD. A number of witnesses stated that members of MPD had indicated to them that they were aware of Human Rights Watch’s investigation over the course of 2011.

Human Rights Watch requested a formal interview with members of the SAU on May 3, 2012, and received a response only on May 22, 2012, resulting in the May 30 meeting. On June 14, Human Rights Watch met with Chief Lanier, Assistant Chief Peter Newsham, and Sergeant Ronald Reid to seek their views on our findings and recommendations and share with them the results of our revised data analysis that incorporated the new incident reports MPD provided in early June. At that meeting, the MPD invited Human Rights Watch to access an internal database, the Washington Area Criminal Intelligence Information System (WACIIS), to look for hospital cases that were still missing documentation. Human Rights Watch reviewed the WACIIS database with MPD staff on June 19. Information from that review is included in this report.

An August 21, 2012, settlement agreement for a lawsuit Human Rights Watch brought to compel a more complete response to our document request enabled us to review investigative files for 173 cases at the MPD’s offices, plus 88 cases from 2009 through 2011 that were not assigned case numbers. The files were taken from WACIIS, which should contain a complete record of an investigation. According to the Sexual Assault Unit’s Standard Operating Procedures, “[a]ny information received or actions performed on a case shall be documented by the Detectives/officials on a WACIIS PD 854.”[83]

Human Rights Watch moved the release date for the report from June to December to enable it to analyze the additional information obtained from the MPD in June, July, and August and to ensure that MPD had adequate opportunity to provide all relevant information for this analysis. Human Rights Watch also offered to interview individuals recommended by MPD as having information relevant for this report.

As a result, Human Rights Watch interviewed 11 people at MPD’s request. Seven of those interviewed were prosecutors (who each asked not to be identified in the report), three were doctors, and a fourth was the head of MPD’s Victim Services whom Human Rights Watch had met on May 30. Although none was in a position to observe police initial interaction with victims (as one prosecutor said, “we don’t go behind the curtain to see if there are other cases,)”[84] which is the focus of this report, their general observations about the SAU have been incorporated into this report.

The data analysis section of this report includes a more detailed discussion of Human Rights Watch’s efforts to ensure that the MPD had an opportunity to locate missing case information.

On December 6, 2012, Human Rights Watch provided the MPD with a summary of our updated findings and provided them with two weeks to respond. Their December 20 response is included in this report.

[81] Many of these were duplicates or misdemeanors with minimal physical contact that fall outside of our analysis.

[82] Email correspondence from Chief Lanier to Human Rights Watch, June 13, 2012, on file at Human Rights Watch.

[83] Metropolitan Police Department, Sexual Assault Unit SOP, January 14, 2003, pp. 55-57. The SOP indicate these forms are “probably the most important report you will initially fill out in a sex offense investigation” and should contain an “as complete as possible” account of the complainant’s report, the investigation, and other important information about the case. It states, “The importance of documentation cannot be overly stressed,” as “you have no idea who will be looking at it later.” Ibid., pp. 52-55.

[84] Human Rights Watch telephone interview with C.L., assistant US attorney, Washington D.C., September 18, 2012.