The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The FBI failed Larry Nassar’s victims. If law enforcement doesn’t investigate crimes, what is it for?

Former USA Gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar at his sentencing hearing in Lansing, Mich., on Jan. 24, 2018. (Carlos Osorio/AP)
Placeholder while article actions load

Former USA Gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar’s abuse of young athletes under his care was an appalling crime. And according to a damning new report from the Justice Department’s inspector general, the FBI has its own shame to answer for. The bureau spent so long evading responsibility for the case that it may have given Nassar time to abuse about 70 more women and girls before the Michigan State University police department arrested him in 2016.

Just as former police officer Derek Chauvin’s murder of George Floyd ignited a long-overdue national discussion of police violence, the Justice Department’s report should prompt a searching examination of law enforcement effectiveness. If police departments and federal agencies are to win back Americans’ trust, preventing officers from behaving with criminal brutality is just a start. Law enforcement also needs to prove that it can do what the public asks of it: solve serious crimes.

There’s nothing new about prosecutors, police departments and federal agencies failing to effectively carry out their basic functions.

As sociologist Barry Latzer explored in his 2016 book “The Rise and Fall of Violent Crime in America,” the mid-century crime wave was devastating not merely because crime shot up. During that period, police departments also got worse at investigating those crimes and securing arrests and convictions of those who committed them.

Police cleared approximately 40 percent of robbery cases in the 1950s and 60s, “which is not a very high rate to begin with,” Latzer notes. But by 1990 that figure had declined to 25 percent.

An influx of new police officers in the 1980s and 1990s didn’t improve clearance rates. In 1980, 72 percent of murders, 59 percent of aggravated assaults, 49 percent of rapes and 24 percent of robberies led to an arrest or other resolution. The Federal Bureau of Investigation’s latest figures, from 2018, show declines in every category except robbery: Only 62.3 percent of murders and non-negligent manslaughters, 52.5 percent of aggravated assaults, 33.4 percent of rapes were reported cleared that year. The robbery clearance rate had improved to 30.4 percent.

These dispiriting statistics certainly aren’t apparent in the rhetoric of police unions, which paint their profession as the thin blue line separating Americans from violent anarchy. You wouldn’t know about them from pop culture, which has lionized police for decades.

Citizen-shot video of shocking police violence has gone a long way toward tearing holes in that facade. But decades of law enforcement falling short on its core mission surely contributes to a steady erosion of trust as well. Calls to “defund the police” make much more sense if communities believe they are getting little in exchange for that money.

The Justice Department report on the FBI’s handling of the Nassar case is damning not because it documents law enforcement violence, or even the kind of ugly victim-blaming that has too often characterized sexual assault investigations. Rather, what it documents is petty buck-passing, laziness and self-dealing.

The Indianapolis regional FBI office approached by USA Gymnastics officials in 2015 “did not formally document any of its investigative activity,” “did not formally open an investigation or assessment of the matter,” “did not advise state or local authorities about the allegations and did not take any action to mitigate the risk to gymnasts that Nassar continued to treat," the report says. When the media started investigating, Indianapolis Field Office Special Agent in Charge W. Jay Abbott suggested that the FBI lie about how quickly his office had moved to address the allegations. That would be grotesque enough even if Abbott hadn’t met with a USA Gymnastics official to discuss a possible job with the U.S. Olympic Committee.

The report concludes that “despite the extraordinarily serious nature of the allegations and the possibility that Nassar’s conduct could be continuing, senior officials in the FBI Indianapolis Field Office failed to respond to the Nassar allegations with the utmost seriousness and urgency that they deserved and required.”

This disgrace was not inevitable, though as Bill Cosby’s recent release from prison on grounds of prosecutorial misconduct illustrates, the sloppiness was hardly unique to our system. The prompt and effective investigation of Nassar by Michigan State University police lieutenant Andrea Munford and her team proved that police and prosecutors can do better.

Munford took Rachael Denhollander’s initial sexual assault report against Nassar over the phone in 2016. Munford interviewed Nassar the day after she met with Denhollander in person. And Munford moved rapidly to build a case rooted in Nassar’s abuse of Kyle Stephens, because, as Munford told the Lansing State Journal, his dismissal from Michigan State might not be enough to prevent him from abusing more victims.

For law enforcement agencies to win back Americans’ confidence, they need to treat both the Derek Chauvins and the W. Jay Abbotts of the world as enemies of their profession. And they must elevate the Andrea Munfords as exemplars. It’s not enough to stop police officers and federal agents from committing crimes of their own. They have to do their jobs well, too.

Read more:

William J. Bratton: As a longtime police chief, I believe we have to reestablish trust

David Byler: Yes, the police have high approval ratings. But Americans support police reform, too.

David Von Drehle: The power to keep secrets is gone

The Post’s View: A college’s willful blindness to a sexual assault scandal

Danielle Allen: Impeachment is done. Now, take on the FBI.