Human Rights Watch (HRW) Report Faults DC Police on Sexual Assault Investigations

On Thursday, January 24, CASS staff attended a press conference at the National Press Club in Washington, DC, to mark the release of Human Rights Watch (HRW)’s report, “Capitol Offense: Police Mishandling of Sexual Assault Cases in the District of Columbia.” (See video below.) According to HRW, which is an international nonprofit that conducts research and advocacy on human rights, initiated research into Metropolitan Police Department’s (MPD) handling of sexual assault cases after observing the unusually low numbers of sexual assaults that the MPD reported to the FBI. HRW’s resulting report, which is based upon 150 interviews and over 250 internal investigative files for sex abuse cases between 2008-2011, contains heart-wrenching narratives of survivors who allege that MPD detectives discouraged them from reporting, posed victim-blaming or inappropriate questions, questioned their credibility, or told them that they were wasting the detective’s time. Since its release Thursday, the report has garnered considerable attention, and it has increased the momentum for demand for improvements in how MPD responds to cases of sexual assault.

HRW Report: DC Police Mishandle Sexual Assault Cases

An investigation of the Metropolitan Police Department’s (MPD) by Human Rights Watch (HRW) found that sexual assault cases are too often not properly documented or investigated and victims may face callous, traumatizing treatment.

At Thursday’s press conference, Sara Darehshori, senior counsel with the US Program at Human Rights Watch, reviewed findings from HRW’s two-year investigation. The investigation found that MPD failed to document a great number of sexual assault complaints, as there exist no incident reports for a substantial number of cases recorded by Washington Hospital Center. HRW also found that MPD regularly failed to write reports for cases when detectives did not believe victims, and often disregarded cases involving alcohol or drugs. MPD also often misclassified serious cases of sex abuse as a non-sex offense or a misdemeanor, minimizing the victim’s experience and also potentially denying the victim access to support services. What’s more, even in those cases in which MPD detectives did document sexual assault complaints, detectives often failed to conduct investigations.

Roger Canaff, former Special Victims Prosecutor and board member for End Violence Against Women International (EVAWI), said that HRW’s investigation reveals a “disturbing pattern of substandard response.” The consequences of a “substandard” response, or a response that is of a quality lower than that prescribed by law, are many, and impact not only the survivor, but also the community at large. Many survivors can be retraumatized by insensitive police interviewing, and their healing processes are hindered when they receive negative or non-empathetic responses. From a legal standpoint, a substandard response from law enforcement also poisons cases, as survivors who do not feel safe or relaxed during a police interview may not be able to recall important details. Lastly, inadequate police responses to sexual assault result in a continued danger to the community because not only are perpetrators not brought to justice, but a loss of community trust in law enforcement can have a devastating effect on crime reporting.

CASS echoes HRW’s recommendation that MPD move toward a more survivor-centered approach to sexual assault cases. However, we also feel strongly that MPD’s mishandling of sexual assault cases should be viewed as just one piece of the many problems with our community’s response to sexual assault. Beyond fostering more transparency and accountability in the DC police department, we need to increase collaboration amongst all the various institutions and individuals who respond to sexual assault survivors. We also need to work to eradicate a culture of tolerance and normalization of sexual assault, and work to create a community in which survivors feel safe and validated when they come forward and report – and thus are not afraid or hesitant to do so.