WASHINGTON – Like many people who are sexually assaulted, she never thought it could happen to her. She wasn’t drunk. She wasn’t walking down a dark alley. She was just a 30-something woman on a date.
It took two days before this D.C. resident, who asked that her name not be used, felt ready to seek medical attention and file a police report. She was in shock, traumatized by the violence that shattered her sense of security.
Another shock jilted her at the hospital when it became evident that the detective was not on her side.
“I was raised to trust the police – to think when something bad happens, those are the good guys,” she says. “It was an utter shock to have the detective not even want to take my report.”
The detective also refused to wait until a sexual assault advocate arrived before interviewing the victim, the woman says. During their subsequent interactions, the detective repeatedly interrupted her and even stopped taking notes before the victim finished recounting details of her attack.
“When I went to the police, I just wanted to be heard and taken seriously,” she says. “As a woman, as a female detective, I did expect her to be more understanding of the situation…I think more than anything, I was just really disappointed.”
This victim’s experience with the Metropolitan Police Department is just one of many chronicled in a damning report released Thursday by Human Rights Watch. The 196-page indictment accuses police of mishandling by failing to investigate almost 200 sexual assault cases between October 2008 and September 2011.
A two-year investigation found that in 170 cases, police reports were not filed after a victim came forward. Some investigations were shoddy or incomplete, and included instances of victim-blaming, bullying and even intimidation, the report says.
“The detectives were belittling the victims, were threatening them with prosecution for false reporting, were threatening them, in some cases, with deportation,” lead researcher Sara Darehshori says. “There was a feeling that this [report] was a necessary step in exposing those problems.”
Another victim, identified only as Estella C., shared her experience with Human Rights Watch. She had been vaginally and orally assaulted by an acquaintance in his truck, she says in the report. When she recounted her story to police, the detective “rolled her eyes … made comments like ‘So you were into it,’ and repeatedly said the incident did not sound like rape.”
The victim eventually drove herself to the hospital to avoid speaking further with the detective, the report says.
Police Chief Cathy Lanier issued a statement after the findings were released, calling them flawed and saying they will only deter women from reporting assaults in the future. Lanier adds that she has made many improvements in the way police investigate and document sexual assaults.
“MPD has conducted significant outreach to improve reporting over the past few years and we fear that this report based largely on a few case examples from years ago will undo the progress that we have made,” she says in the statement.
The improvements include developing sexual abuse training for police officers, working more closely with advocates and changing how reports are labeled. MPD also launched an online site to encourage victims to come forward without having to do so in person.
In her research, Darehshori did find instances where police were helpful and respectful of the victims, she says. But despite the success stories and recent reforms, there remains a persistent systemic problem underlying the mishandling of sexual assault cases, Darehshori says.
“The problems that we are seeing are not with police policies, but with police practice and with a police culture that tolerates the kind of treatment we have seen of victims and the failing to follow up with these cases,” she says. “We are concerned that if there is not an acknowledgement that these problems exist, that there won’t really be an ability to truly reform the problems we are seeing.”
Denise Snyder, executive director of the D.C. Rape Crisis Center, works closely with victims and often serves as a liason between officers and survivors. While she has witnessed many of the problems outlined by Human Rights Watch, she says she has also seen improvement within MPD.
Her hope is that the dispute between the human rights organization and Lanier’s office does not distract from the victims’ pain and recovery.
“Many times, it’s not so much survivors needing to have someone arrested and locked up in jail; they need to have a sense of validation from our criminal justice system,” Snyder says. “The survivor needs to feel like her reality has been validated.”
This was the case for the victim who spoke with WTOP, who says she felt worse after approaching police.
“To be dismissed and not understood and questioned like I might be exaggerating things or complaining – I just don’t even know what to say about that,” she says.
Since the report was released, D.C. Councilmember Tommy Wells says he plans to hold a hearing about the report’s findings, The Washington Post reports.
Representatives from Human Rights Watch have already met with other members of the D.C. Council and the Department of Justice, Darehshori says.