By Joanna Walters, The Guardian
Human Rights Watch calls for investigation after report found victims endure 'callous and traumatising' treatment from police
Victims of sexual assault in Washington DC too often endure "callous and traumatising" treatment from the police while attacks are dismissed on the spot and never investigated, according to a bombshell report.
Campaign group Human Rights Watch is concerned that problems at the city's Metropolitan police department are so serious that it amounts to "an institutional tolerance of inappropriate behaviour" by poorly trained detectives.
More than 40% of reviewed cases of sexual assault reported to the police by the city's central hospital, after victims received forensic examinations, "appear never to have been investigated" or even documented by the MPD, today's report says.
Titled 'Capitol Offense: Police mishandling of sexual assault cases in the District of Columbia', the Human Rights Watch (HRW) report calls for a Department of Justice investigation into the police department.
"Sexual assault is the most under-reported 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," said Sara Darehshori, senior counsel at Human Rights Watch and the author of the report.
"Unfortunately, for some victims in DC who bravely came forward and reported their assaults, those fears were realised."
Last week the Guardian reported the preliminary findings of HRW's investigation. It was launched amid growing alarm over over certain practices in Washington, though serious problems prevail in many police departments across the US.
HRW analysed MPD cases from 2008 to 2011 and conducted 150 interviews. In addition to dismissing a large number of sexual assault and rape cases in the first instance, MPD also "misclassified serious sexual assaults as lesser or other crimes", according to the report.
Many disturbing sexual attacks were documented merely as miscellaneous or for "office information only" and not followed up by detectives.
Human Rights Watch also found that the police presented cases to prosecutors for arrest warrants that were "so inadequately investigated" that prosecutors had little choice but to refuse them, which resulted in them being closed by the police.
"To hear him tell me he didn't believe me was a slap in my face. It just took the air right out of me. And where do you go from there when the policeman tells you he doesn't believe you?" one rape survivor told HRW, which has withheld many names of victims and sources in the report for those individuals' protection.
In another case, hospital staff told HRW of a passerby reporting a trail of blood leading to a hotel room, where a woman was found unconscious and bleeding in the bathroom, and five men passed out in the bedroom. The women required emergency surgery for acute tearing to her genitals.
But an MPD detective from the sexual assault unit – sometimes nicknamed internally 'the sex squad' – was dismissive.
He reportedly said in front of witnesses: "Well, she could have fallen on rocks and may not have had panties on. Also, what kind of girl is in a room with five guys?"
One victim interviewed by MPD filed a complaint that referred to "the confrontational, insensitive manner in which they questioned me," which she said was "very degrading and humiliating … I felt as if I was assaulted by police officers who swore an oath to protect and serve."
Reports of this kind of treatment – from male and female officers – which made many victims feel intimidated or ashamed were far from isolated, HRW found in its 197-page report. MPD's good detectives, meanwhile, receive insufficient credit for their work.
MPD is one of the 10 largest city police departments in the country.
One victim being treated at the hospital after waking up in pain and believing she had been drugged and brutally raped was 'interviewed' on the phone by a detective for two or three minutes. He later declared that "this young lady's not reporting anything" after she told the detective she kissed a man at a party.
One community expert working with sexual assault victims told HRW that too many MPD cases were simply dropped.
"Investigators serve as prosecutor, judge and jury, and stop the process before it begins," the witness said in an HRW interview in February 2011.
Other victims were told forcefully that they must be lying and were threatened with arrest, or were actively discouraged from filing a complaint or giving forensic evidence at the Washington hospital center where 'rape kit' exams are carried out in DC.
Police chief Cathy Lanier has disputed some of HRW's findings and methodology.
MPD has pointed out that it has been striving to improve its work in the area of sexual assault, particularly since 2008, and is implementing more reforms since it began in-depth discussions with HRW last summer.
A number of prosecutors and senior medical staff have reported that the MPD has been "moving in the right direction" over the past six months.
"The department is committed to thoroughly investigating all allegations of sexual abuse, while being sensitive to the unique impact of this crime on its victims," the MPD said in a statement.
Sara Darehshori, the report's author insisted it was imperative for Lanier to acknowledge the department's serious and enduring problems. "Police policies are not really the problem; police practice is," said Darehshori.
She called for comprehensive reform with external oversight and a sustained commitment by leadership to change the culture of the department.
"Until that happens there is a serious risk that the MPD will continue to mishandle many sexual assault cases, causing traumatised victims further suffering and deterring others from coming forward. Meanwhile, the attackers will escape accountability," said Darehshori.
As well as a Department of Justice investigation, HRW's report calls for independent oversight of police reforms in Washington and a complete overhaul of training.
[Photo via AFP]