From Cody Telep. Follow him on Twitter @codywt, email him at cody[AT]borderstan.com.
International non-profit organization Human Rights Watch (HRW) informed Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) Chief Cathy Lanier in a May 30 letter that an investigation by the organization had uncovered deficiencies in MPD’s investigation of sexual assault cases and police treatment of individuals reporting sexual assaults.
The letter, from Human Rights Watch Senior Counsel Sara Darehshori, summarizes recommendations from a forthcoming HRW report on these issues and asks for any comments from MPD. Lanier responded with a letter and attachments on June 8.
In Borderstan, reported sexual abuse cases (which include first and second degree sexual assaults of adults) are a fairly rare occurrence. There were 16 sexual abuse incidents in 2011 and 15 in 2010. Through the first three months of 2012, three sexual abuse incidents were reported.
The organization’s letter provided a summary of data collection efforts and recommendations for changes in MPD policy and practice. HRW’s analysis of documents from MPD and the Office of Victim Services and 128 interviews with victims and advocacy groups revealed what the letter describes as a “failure to investigate” many cases.
HRW based this conclusion on discrepancies between the number of sexual abuse incident reports and the number of forensic exams conducted under the Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner program at Washington Hospital Center since the program began in October 2008.
Their analyses suggest a much lower number of incident reports for sexual assault than would be expected based on hospital records. HRW also reports anecdotal evidence that Sexual Assault Unit detectives encourage officers to not write incident reports in instances where the veracity of the victim’s story is in doubt, when drugs and alcohol are involved, or when the victim is suspected of being a prostitute.
Based on interview data, HRW also accuses MPD detectives of frequently acting dismissively or harshly towards sexual assault victims. The letter, for example, describes examples of victim-blaming from detectives in interviews with victims. Based on these accusations, HRW provided a list of draft recommendations for MPD and plans to request that the U.S. Department of Justice investigate the handling of sexual assault cases by the department.
Chief Lanier’s response disputes many of the assertions in HRW’s letter. Lanier argues that differences in the number of hospital exams and incident reports are a result of HRW having incomplete data and failing to recognize that not all potential assaults require an incident report. Lanier also notes that the department has undergone a number of recent reform efforts related to sexual assault cases, including a new general order that went into effort in August 2011, and that the dataset HRW is using may not reflect these changes in the department.
In terms of HRW’s recommendations, Lanier agreed with many of them and noted plans to implement several in MPD soon. This includes making the treatment of victims part of the performance evaluation criteria for Sexual Assault Unit detectives, as well as creating standard operating procedures requiring that sexual assault cases are investigated by a detective, that sexual assault examination kits are picked up from the hospital regularly, that detectives provide victims with their contact information, and that victims are interviewed in comfortable and private areas.
Lanier also announced plans for department-wide training on sexual assault investigations in 2013 and additional training for Sexual Assault Unit detectives in the next few months. Lanier also sent a department-wide memo on June 8, reminding officers to report all cases of sexual assault.
Lanier also wrote a separate letter to U.S. Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division Thomas Perez requesting the Department of Justice’s assistance in evaluating the claims made by HRW. Currently, HRW has not released its full report to MPD and MPD is withholding certain data from HRW to protect victim confidentiality, so Lanier is asking the Department of Justice to provide an unbiased review of the allegations and available data.
It is not yet clear if Chief Lanier’s response will lead to a delay in the publication of the HRW report, which the organization was planning to release in mid-June.