Spreading the Word on Our Bystander Intervention Work to Prevent Sexual Assault!

Just two weeks ago, CASS’s Zosia and I teamed up with Lauren Taylor of Defend Yourself and presented CASS/Defend Yourself’s collaborative Safe Bars program to a packed room at the 2013 National Sexual Assault Conference (NSAC) in Los Angeles! We co-presented with Carol Hensell of the Arizona Department of Health Services (ADHS) and Myra Ferell-Womochil of Victim Witness Services of Coconino County, who helped bring innovative sexual assault prevention training to alcohol-serving establishments in Arizona through the Arizona Safer Bars Alliance (ASBA). Together, we discussed and compared CASS’s grassroots approach to violence prevention through our Safe Bars program (which was in part inspired by Arizona’s work) and ADHS’s community and state-government led efforts in Arizona.

The packed room while we presented at NSAC!

Both Safe Bars and ASBA are rooted in bystander intervention, which is a key approach to preventing sexual violence. In presenting at NSAC, Zosia explained how bystander intervention trainers should envision themselves as community organizers, particularly ones who are charged with helping build the skills of leaders. Zosia emphasized the importance of tailoring bystander intervention approaches to each specific community. Trainers should also be sure to honor the knowledge that trainees already have on the issue and help build their sense of accountability to others. In regard to preventing sexual harassment and assault in bars, the most crucial aspect of bystander intervention training is often subverting the myths regarding alcohol use and sexual assault.

Julia shared with the NSAC audience the basic elements of bystander intervention. She also discussed CASS’s work with DC’s Alcoholic Beverage Regulation Administration (ABRA), for which we provided testimony on the need for sexual assault prevention training in bars and clubs, developed and delivered by subject matter experts. After the session was over, we were excited to be approached by individuals from across the country who have been working on similar prevention efforts in their states and communities. There was great energy from the group about CASS’s work in DC and helping similar efforts by sharing our successes and challenges.

Collective Action for Safe Spaces at the 2013 National Sexual Assault Conference

Our NSAC team! Lauren Taylor, Zosia Sztykowski, Julia Strange, Carol Hensell and Myra Ferell-Womochi (l-r)

We learned so much at NSAC! We loved the opportunity to present alongside so many wonderful friends and allies doing critical work in violence prevention, including FORCE: Upsetting Rape Culture, who shared their amazing “Pink Loves Consent” work; Chai Jindasurat of the Anti-Violence Project, who spoke on violence prevention efforts in LGBTQ communities; Holly Kearl of Stop Street Harassment, who presented on dismantling rape culture; and Sangeetha Ravichandran of A Long Walk Home, who shared her incredible work using the arts to empower youth to heal from sexual violence.

We hope to see you all next year at the 2014 National Sexual Assault Conference in Pittsburgh!

Roll Up Your Sleeves, CASS Community: We’ve Got Work to Do!

HRW's 196-page report concludes that in many sexual assault cases, DC police did not file incident reports, which are required to proceed with an investigation, or misclassified serious sexual assaults as lesser or other crimes.

HRW’s 196-page report concludes that in many sexual assault cases, DC police did not file incident reports, which are required to proceed with an investigation, or misclassified serious sexual assaults as lesser or other crimes.

Last week, we told you about the DC Council’s June 27th hearing to present an independent review of the January 2013 Human Rights Watch (HRW) report, “Capitol Offense: Police Mishandling of Sexual Assault Cases in the District of Columbia.” The report alleges that DC police disregarded rape victims in an effort to play down the crimes, resulting in 170 reports that were missing or filed in a way that ensured they would not be properly investigated. CASS attended the June 27th hearing, held by the Committee on Judiciary and Public Safety, along with community advocates and Sara Dareshori, author of the HRW report and expert on police handling of sexual assault cases.

From our initial analysis, we found the independent review report, which was conducted by law firm Crowell & Moring, to be vague. We believe that the review understates the problems highlighted by the HRW report. But there’s a silver lining. Despite focusing on what they perceived to be methodological flaws in the HRW report, Crowell & Moring made recommendations that closely mirror HRW’s original recommendations. So DC Council has heard from both HRW and from Crowell and Moring that there are reforms that will be integral to ensuring that MPD is affording sexual assault survivors the respect and treatment they deserve, and are doing everything in their power to bring perpetrators to justice.

Those recommendations include:

    • Ensure survivor confidentiality;
    • Give sexual assault survivors the right to have an advocate present in interviews with the police, and during a Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner (SANE) exam;
    • Retain an independent expert consultant/advisor to ensure that MPD’s handling of sexual assault investigations meets the highest national standards;
    • Ensure oversight mechanisms are in place, and have regular reports on implementing recommended changes be part of the Council’s regular performance oversight hearings;
    • Provide expanded and ongoing training to MPD on trauma-informed interview techniques, survivor-centered approaches to investigation, and other best practices.

As DC Council begins their work on a bill to be introduced prior to summer recess on July 15th, CASS will continue to advocate for the inclusion of these important recommendations. If all goes well, we’ve got from now until mid-September, when DC Council is back in session, to pull together a broad coalition of community advocacy groups, survivors, direct service providers and other key stakeholders to amplify the community’s call for responsive and trauma-informed police investigations of sexual assault.

If you are interested in getting involved in these efforts, please email Julia Strange at julia@collectiveactiondc.org.

Help Us Make DC Safer: Tell us about your transit needs!

Toma nuestra encuestra en espanol.

At Collective Action for Safe Spaces (CASS), we have much love for each and every member of our active and informed community who contributes to the blog, engages with us on social media and rolls up their sleeves to lend a hand. Whether you’re an active contributor or a quiet supporter, we think you’re the bee’s knees.

As CASS prepares to launch RightRidesDC (modeled after New York’s award-winning RightRides program that has been operating successfully since 2004), we want to know about your transportation experiences, including public transit, private taxis, car services, and walking or biking late at night around DC! This information will be invaluable to our efforts to meet the safe, affordable transportation needs of our community.

The survey closes Friday, May 24. Please, tweet, post on FB, send to your listervs and forward to friends, colleagues, strangers who live or play in DC! As a small gift for helping us out, at the end of the survey, you’ll be able to submit your email address to be included in a drawing for a $25 gift certificate.


RightRides provides free, safe rides home to women and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer/questioning, and gender non-conforming (LGBTQGNC) individuals on Friday and Saturday nights, from 11:59 P.M. to 3:00 A.M.  Rides are provided by friendly volunteer driving teams made up of a driver and a navigator (one of which identifies as female) to see riders home safely and help advocate for their increased personal safety.  All driving teams are pre-screened to meet high safety standards.

Since 2004, RightRides in New York City has driven more than 6,000 Riders safely home.  Last year saw a 51 percent increase in reported sexual assaults in DC, as well as over 40 reported hate crimes based on actual or perceived sexual orientation, we want to bring RightRides to DC. The RightRides motto puts it aptly: “Because getting home safely shouldn’t be a luxury.”

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.

Honoring International Transgender Day of Remembrance (11/19)

On Tuesday, November 19th, Collective Action for Safe Spaces (CASS) joined hundreds of community members at the International Transgender Day of Remembrance vigil, held at the Metropolitan Community Church of DC in NW. Transgender Day of Remembrance was founded in 1998 by Gwendolyn Ann Smith — a transgender graphic designer, columnist, and activist — to memorialize the murder of Rita Hester in Allston, Massachusetts. Nearly 15 years later, the day has burgeoned from a web-based project into an international day of action.

On International Transgender Day of Remembrance, Mayor Vincent Gray and Lisa Mallory accept awards for promoting economic justice for transgender residents of the District.

The standing-room only crowd heard from friends and family of murdered transgender people on the many things they loved and missed about their loved ones.  Speakers also called upon attendees to celebrate survivors and take action to foster safety and understanding for transgender folks.

Mayor Gray, who received an award for his administration’s focus on improving the lives of transgender people in the District, emphasized that his mantra of “One City” meant that all were welcome in DC.  This fall, he presided over the debut of a PSA series on Metro trains and bus shelters that aims “to increase understanding of transgender and gender non-conforming people, reduce incidents of discrimination and increase reporting [of such incidents].” Lisa Mallory, Director of the DC Department of Employment Services, also received an award for starting Project Empowerment, a job training program for DC trans residents.  Programs such as Project Empower are a vital part of ensuring economic justice for trans folks, over 27 percent of whom reported annual incomes below $20,000 in a national survey.

Transgender people experience violence at far higher rates than the general population.  According to one study, about 50 percent of trans people report unwanted sexual activity, including sexual assault and rape.  In a national survey, 97 percent of transgender respondents reported experiencing mistreatment, harassment, or discrimination at their place of work.  According to Holly Kearl of Stop Street Harassment, trans individuals also face some of the most vicious forms of street harassment, including murder.

Just days after Transgender Day of Remembrance, The New York Times devoted lengthy coverage to the rise in antigay crimes in the District.  According to NYT,  through October of this year, DC police recorded 51 hate crimes against gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender residents, just short of the record 53 for all of 2011. In November 2011, DC police began posting monthly statistics on hate crimes after advocates raised concerns that police weren’t doing enough to protect the trans community. It is encouraging to see so many members of the DC city administration and of the community at large come together to grieve the people who were lost, and promise to do better in the future. The fight to end street harassment is also a fight to ensure that public spaces are safe for everyone, including those who do not conform to binary gender norms.

The DC Office of Human Rights’ “Transgender & Gender Identity Respect” campaign launched fall 2012