Report suggests ways to improve D.C. police response to rape reports

June 27, 2013

A law firm that reviewed sexual assault investigations by District police recommended changes Wednesday it said would improve the handling of such cases, including hiring an outside expert to review policies and work with detectives.

Crowell & Moring completed the review at the request of the D.C. Council after a human rights group accused the police of failing to investigate scores of sexual assault cases. While the District-based firm found that a January report by Human Rights Watch was flawed, it said that there are ways to improve the police response.

Crowell & Moring partner Keith Harrison and lawyer Jody Goodman presented their recommendations Thursday morning at a round table held by council member Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6), who chairs the public safety committee. Wells said that he will introduce legislation based on the recommendations but did not immediately offer specifics.

Harrison said that police had taken steps to better handle sexual assault cases but that there was more to be done.

The police department “has been gradually improving,” Harrison said. “The HRW report resulted in an acceleration of these changes, but they have been taking place since 2008, and not all are a direct result of the HRW report. Change takes time.”

The Crowell & Moring team recommended giving sexual assault victims the right to have an advocate present during interviews with police. It also suggested that an independent expert trained in sexual assault investigations be used as a consultant to review policies and report to the council on the implementation of the recommended changes.

Harrison and Goodman recommended expanding the department’s training program for new sexual assault investigators and ensuring that there is regular and ongoing training. They also suggested that prosecutors in the U.S. attorney’s office be included in cross-agency training, although that office is not under the D.C. Council’s jurisdiction.

Other recommendations included using victim satisfaction surveys, passing legislation to protect the confidentiality of victims and broadening the time limit during which a victim can file complaints about treatment.

In its January report, Human Rights Watch alleged that D.C. police disregarded rape victims in an effort to play down the crimes. It alleged that 170 reports were missing or filed in a way that ensured they would not be properly investigated.

Crowell & Moring concluded that police had accounted for all but five of those. In one instance, Human Rights Watch said that in a case where a woman was kidnapped and sexually assaulted, D.C. police characterized the crime only as a kidnapping. Crowell & Moring said in its report that the woman was driven into Prince George’s County before she was sexually assaulted, and that police there investigated that crime.

Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier has said the Human Rights Watch report showed a “deliberate bias” against the department. She also said that the department has been working for five years to improve the response to sexual assaults.

Sarah Darehshori, senior counsel for Human Rights Watch, said that the report by Crowell & Moring “mischaracterized” her group’s methodology, which was criticized as flawed. However, she said she is “optimistic” that the reforms will be implemented.

“I’m pleased that we were able to be a catalyst for change,” she said.

Once legislation is introduced, a public hearing will be held to discuss the bill.

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