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Making sure the D.C. police take sex assault seriously

By Sara Darehshori,

In spring 2011, a federal government employee in her 30s was sexually assaulted in the District by a man she met on an Internet dating site. At Washington Hospital Center, where she went for a forensic exam so medical personnel could collect evidence from her body, a female detective from the Sexual Assault Unit of the city’s Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) questioned the woman for three hours, interrupting her frequently in a manner — as the woman saw it — meant to discourage her from reporting the assault and to minimize the seriousness of what had happened to her.

The woman later waited in vain for police to examine the crime scene and collect her clothes for evidence. After six weeks, the police closed her case without prosecution. In the following months, she was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, which she partly attributes to her contact with the MPD. “Reporting to the police was far more traumatizing than the rape itself,” she said.

Unfortunately, experiences like this woman’s are not uncommon in the District. In a new report, based on extensive data analysis and more than 150 interviews, Human Rights Watch documented the MPD’s failure to record or adequately investigate more than 200 sexual abuse cases between 2008 and 2011 — and the repeated mistreatment of survivors who sought its assistance.

Police Chief Cathy Lanier challenges many of the report’s conclusions. She calls our methodology flawed and claims we overlooked recent reforms to how her department handles sexual assault cases. Lanier also touts a 51 percent increase in the number of reported sexual abuse cases in the District between 2011 and 2012, implying that one of the key problems identified by our report — the police’s failure to document cases — has been addressed.

We have learned to approach MPD claims with a degree of skepticism. Lanier’s criticism of our methodology is easily dispensed with. To cite a typical example: We found 170 cases where a victim in the hospital for a forensic exam reported a sexual assault to the police but detectives failed to file an incident report (known as a PD-251). Since this report is required for an investigation to proceed, these cases were not investigated. Lanier claims that the missing cases, even though they had no PD-251 attached to them, did in fact show up in an internal police database and thus were “documented.” But even if the cases were to be found in this database, that fact would be irrelevant, since, lacking incident reports, they were not investigated.

But here’s the thing: Human Rights Watch scoured the internal database with MPD officers looking for the missing cases; we were unable to locate a single one.

We do not downplay recent changes to MPD policy, several of which were adopted at our suggestion; on the contrary, we explicitly welcome them in the report. As for the rise in reported sexual assaults claimed by Lanier, we would like to believe, as The Post editorial board appears to, that this is “a sign that D.C. police are taking more seriously complaints of sexual assault.” But we would be more confident of this if the MPD would submit its numbers, and the details of its investigations, to independent review.

And this gets to the heart of the matter. If the people of Washington are to be reassured that their police department is taking sexual assault seriously, and that victims of abuse are getting the care and respect they are due, the MPD must accept stringent oversight by an independent body that can assess whether claimed reforms are translating to better police practices. After all, in 2008 the MPD was forced by public criticism to reform the way it handles sexual assault cases, and little changed, as our report, which covers the following three years, makes only too clear.

And no wonder. As we stress in the report, the core problem is not with MPD policy; it’s with a police culture that fails to take sexual assault seriously, in direct violation of MPD policy.

This is why we call for the D.C. Council and mayor’s office to establish an independent body that can conduct regular reviews of police sexual-assault investigation files and include members representing civil society, such as groups that provide support services to victims — a mechanism that has been implemented with great success in Philadelphia.

We are pleased the MPD has accepted our recommendation that the Justice Department look into this issue, but the department may or may not have the ability or capacity to conduct such an investigation. Even if it does agree to look into MPD practices, the investigation may take a long time to complete, whereas the acute problems we identify need to be addressed immediately and transparently. That’s why we’ve called for an external oversight mechanism to be established right away.

Police and government officials need to demonstrate clearly to victims of sexual assault that their cases matter. Sexual assault remains the most underreported violent crime in the United States, partly because victims fear that authorities will not believe them and that they will be traumatized if they report their assault. Government officials need to ensure that these fears are not realized.

The writer is a senior counsel at Human Rights Watch and the author of the report “Capitol Offense: Police Mishandling of Sexual Assault Cases in the District of Columbia.”

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