Rights group: Washington, DC police mishandle sexual assault cases, mistreat victims

by Lisa Anderson | https://twitter.com/LisaAndersonNYC | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Thursday, 24 January 2013 15:01 GMT

Human Rights Watch says its research shows that police in Washington, DC repeatedly mishandled reports of sexual assault over a 3-year period, failing to document or properly investigate some 40 percent of cases

NEW YORK (TrustLaw) -- Police in the U.S. capital have established a pattern of mishandling sexual assault cases, failing to properly document or investigate dozens of incidents and treating victims harshly, according to a new Human Rights Watch report.

Reviewing all sexual assault reports made between October 2008 and September 2011 at Washington Hospital Center, the only hospital in the District of Columbia charged with conducting forensic examinations of sexual assault victims, the human rights group found more than 200 cases, 40 percent of the cases reviewed, that appear never to have been documented or properly investigated by the district’s Metropolitan Police Department (MPD).

The Human Rights Watch (HRW) report, released Thursday, also documents cases in which “police re-victimized survivors by treating them callously and skeptically, discouraged sexual assault survivors from reporting their assault or getting a forensic exam, and in some instances threatened them with prosecution for false reporting.”

The report “Capitol Offense: Police Mishandling of Sexual Assault Cases in the District of Columbia” is the result of a 22-month investigation by HRW that included extensive data analysis, examination of hundreds of documents and 150 interviews with sexual assault victims, hospital staff, victims’ advocates, community groups, counsellors and others dealing with victims.

“Sexual assault is the most underreported violent crime in the US, largely because many victims fear that their cases will not be taken seriously and that police will not believe them,” Sara Darehshori, senior counsel in HRW’s US Program and author of the 197-page report, said in a statement. “Unfortunately, for some victims in DC who bravely came forward and reported their assaults, those fears were realized.”

Police Chief Cathy Lanier, who has asked the Justice Department to review the department’s handling of sexual assault complaints, repeatedly challenged the accuracy of HRW’s research in a letter she wrote to Darehshori on December 20, 2012 and posted on the MPD’s web site.

In it, she said “MPD believes that objective outside observers will agree that HRW in its desire to draw public attention to themselves has used unsupported and erroneous information to attack MPD’s handing of sexual abuse investigations.”

In a 13-page “fact sheet” released simultaneously with the report, HRW addresses Lanier’s criticisms, noting that none of them “affect the validity of the report’s findings.”

HRW said it chose to focus on the District of Columbia “because of the unusually low number of sexual assaults it reported to the FBI, as well as significantly higher than average MPD rates of ‘clearing” sexual assault cases than those for comparably sized cities.”

An unusually low rate of reported sexual assault cases and a high rate of “clearing,” or resolving, cases “may indicate cases are being ‘disposed’ of improperly,” according to HRW.  Its report points to cases either not being documented at all or being dismissed as too weak to prosecute due to inadequate investigation.

Reviewing records at the Washington Hospital Center, which conducts forensic exams on sexual assault victims, HRW found 480 cases of patients who had reported sexual assaults to the police at the hospital between October 2008 and September 2011.  HRW found matching police incident reports for 310 of these cases but not for the remaining 171, 35.4 percent of the total. 

Among the 310 cases for which there were police reports, 34 were classified as “miscellaneous” or “office information,” terms that usually indicate no further investigation was done. That would bring the number of sexual assault cases reported at the hospital but not investigated by police to 205, or 42.5 percent of the total, according to the report.


HRW found that the DC police were particularly likely to disregard cases in which the alleged victim had consumed alcohol or drugs or was confused or unable to recall details of the assault.  The report notes that alcohol and drugs are often involved in assault cases and memory lapses are commonly associated with trauma.

According to interviews in the report with victims and health care workers, in such cases officers of the MPD sometimes treated the alleged victim of sexual assault with skepticism or other inappropriate responses.

“I’ll never be able to stop shaking my head at the fact that not only was he not supportive, he made me feel awful about myself  by telling me it was nothing more than an issue that I got too drunk and was regretting a decision I made. It tore me up that he did not believe me and he made it clear to me that he didn't believe me. Traumatized is the word that I felt from the investigator, in some ways, it was worse than the event itself,” said Shelly G (a pseudonym), describing her experience with an MPD detective in October 2009.  

In its report, HRW asserts that the problems documented at the MPD are not the result of a flawed policy but the “failure by the police to respond with sufficient seriousness and sensitivity to sexual assault complaints.”  It cites inadequate training in how to handle such cases as one contributing factor.

HRW called for the DC Mayor and City Council to establish an independent oversight mechanism to ensure that MPD officers receive proper training and that sexual assault complaints are properly investigated.

The MPD devotes a page of its web site to its exchanges with HRW, including correspondence between the two organizations, and posted the embargoed version of the HRW report on January 20, four days before the embargo was lifted on Thursday.

The site also introduced a new feature dated January 20 called “Voices Unheard: Case Review Opportunity.”

Inviting dissatisfied victims to contact the police, it said “If you believe you were the victim of a sexual assault or sexually-based crime and the investigation was not concluded to your satisfaction, the MPD wants to hear from you. Our investigators want to ensure every case receives the proper treatment and full exploration of the facts toward the service of justice.  Starting this week, you will be able to begin the process of re-opening an investigation by contacting our special sexual assault case review team at mpd.voicesheard@dc.gov


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