IN JANUARY, Human Rights Watch released a 197-page report that painted a disturbing picture of how the Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) handles sexual assault crimes. Now that report is itself the subject of a disturbing review.
Human Rights Watch (HRW), best known for its inquiries into the abuses of autocratic states around the world, accused the D.C. police department of dropping cases and mistreating victims. Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier vehemently disputed the findings of the report, titled “Capitol Offense: Police Mishandling of Sexual Assault Cases in the District of Columbia.” D.C. Council member Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6), chairman of the committee with oversight over police, wisely enlisted the law firm Crowell & Moring to provide an objective, third-party review.
The verdict, as The Post’s Peter Hermann reported, generally supported Ms. Lanier’s objections: The HRW report was flawed and not an accurate reflection of the situation in the District. “The bottom line,” investigators for the law firm wrote, “is that HRW’s allegation that MPD failed to document and investigate . . .  reports made to MPD by victims of sexual assault is not accurate.” The law firm investigators, including two former prosecutors, found that the original report overemphasized a few cases and omitted facts (some favorable to police) to buttress its chilling portrayal of police practices and policies. “We do not doubt the victims’ accounts in the HRW report . . . But, we also found that the Report does not tell the whole story, nor does it paint an accurate picture of MPD’s treatment of most sexual assault victims,” investigators wrote.
There is no question, as the chief has acknowledged, that there have been problems in the department’s approach to sexual assaults, an underreported crime. Reforms suggested by Human Rights Watch in the course of its investigation helped speed improvements already underway; the report acted as a “catalyst for positive change,” the Crowell review concluded.
But in presenting an outdated and distorted portrayal of the police, Human Rights Watch may have done harm as well. The Crowell report cited a decrease in the number of sexual assault victims who requested medical forensic evaluations in the aftermath of the report’s release, suggesting there was a “discernible deficit of trust” from victims in how they will be treated by the system.
Human Rights Watch in an e-mail to us said it is preparing “a comprehensive response” to the Crowell report. The e-mail noted that Crowell investigators had access to more information than did Human Rights Watch investigators, who faced obstructions and delays from police. It disagreed that its report may have caused a drop in victim requests for medical forensic evaluations.
The group does valuable work in standing up for human rights everywhere and sounding the alarm when it discovers violations. All the more reason for it to examine the processes that led to its flawed investigation in Washington.