D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson on Friday urged police and a human rights group to address what calls serious issues raised in a report accusing city police of mishandling sexual assault cases — and tone-down the back-and-forth bickering between the organizations.
“I think it’s easy for an institution to get defensive,” said Mendelson (D), who had previously chaired the Council’s public safety committee, in an interview. “Name calling doesn’t help.”
The chairman said he is concerned with two issues Human Rights Watch highlighted in its report, released Thursday: allegations that police never documented or investigated at least 170 sexual assault cases, and that officers were insensitive to women filing complaints.
“Policing is hard work,” Mendelson said. “Police deal with the worst aspects of society. I don't want to say this is easy. ... but clearly there are officers who are not being as sensitive as they need to be with victims.
“If the community is angry or distrustful, or withholding information, then police are not going to be able to do their job,” Mendelson said.
Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier has sternly questioned the report’s conclusions and methods. In a statement Thursday, she said those problems undermine the credibility of the organization, which works across the world to uncover abuse.
Lanier has refuted the allegation that sexual assaults were never recorded and said the report may deter women from coming forward.
At the same time, Lanier has promised a full review of the rights group’s findings and a public campaign to encourage women who feel they weren’t taken seriously to come forward. The chief has also invited the U.S. Department of Justice to review her books.
On Thursday, Councilman Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6), the new chairman of the public safety committee, promised a public hearing on the issue. Mendelson said he supports that effort.
The Human Rights Watch report includes testimonials from up to 15 women who told of horrific experiences dealing with D.C. police, some saying they were talked into not proceeding with an investigation or that their reports were filed under labels such “miscellaneous” and never looked into.
Lanier has said that the report reflects attitudes that predate reforms she made in the sexual assault unit, but she promised to look into allegations of mistreatment. She also said that officers in the field are instructed to call detectives in the sexual assault unit on any case “where there is a hint of sexual abuse.”