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.