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In 2011, Sara Darehshori, a senior counsel at Human Rights Watch, got curious about Washington. How did the Metropolitan Police Department have such an unusually low rate of sexual assaults, and how did it manage to clear an unusually high number of the cases it did have? After more than a year of investigating and more than 150 interviews, Darehshori has her answers: MPD’s Sexual Assault Unit is so successful investigating sex crimes because, Darehshori reports, they misclassify them, don’t investigate them, or intimidate victims into dropping their reports.
From October 2008 and September 2011, MPD had 571 incident reports for sexual assault, according to the report Human Rights Watch released today. But when looking at figures for hospital sexual assault treatment as well as national reporting estimates, that number should be closer to 739 if MPD is conducting its investigations correctly, Dareshori writes. But while the statistics are worrying, anecdotal evidence Dareshori collected from victims about their treatment by MPD detectives is even more affecting.
In a December letter (PDF) to the group, MPD Chief Cathy Lanier slammed the upcoming report, claiming that researchers had misunderstood the department’s numbers. For example, while Human Rights Watch writes that there were only 571 incident reports over the almost three-year period, Lanier says the department shared 1,080 with the group. Dareshori tells City Desk that the discrepancy is due to the fact that the extra incident reports, which she says involved children or more minor sex crimes like groping, were not under the purview of MPD’s Sexual Assault Unit and thus outside the study. (The Post points out that MPD posted an advance copy of the report on its website earlier this week.)
In a statement released today, Lanier again criticized the reporting, saying that it is based on “flawed methodology” and years-old example, hurting the group’s credibility. “What is extremely troubling is that MPD believes that after HRW packs up and leaves their press conference that this report will make some of our most vulnerable victims here in the District of Columbia, the victims of sexual abuse, even more reluctant to report their abuses to the police,” Lanier says.
The 197-page report contains countless examples of victims, advocates, and police records alleging outrageous behavior from MPD detectives. Here are some of the worst.
A married woman is told police will tell her husband that she was raped unless she drops the investigation:
When one married victim, Laura T., attempted to report her sexual assault in late 2011, the detective told her he would have to inform her husband in order to proceed with his investigation. “I then asked him please don’t and he said ok – and then he handed me a form to deny ongoing investigation [decline an investigation] so therefore I signed it.”
Police refuse to investigate a case because of a lack of victim testimony, even though the victim is barely conscious:
The complainant was under the influence and had to be woken with an ammonia capsule to be interviewed at the hospital. The case was filed as “office information” because “The complainant did not report a sexual assault.” The police file contained no indication of follow-up with the complainant.
Police blame a runaway for being in a position to be assaulted:
Medical staff overheard a detective tell an 18-year-old runaway who was assaulted in the middle of the night, “You shouldn’t have been outside. This is what happens at two in the morning. What do you expect?”
A female detective compares dirty talk in her own marriage to a victim’s rape:
The detective who interviewed Susan D. made several references to her own personal history during the interview. When Susan said she was uncomfortable when her assailant made references to her “tight white pussy,” the detective said, “Honey, that’s not anything. I am half-white and my husband says that kind of thing to me all the time.”
Officers arrest some reporting victims for outstanding warrants:
Upon conducting a WALES [Washington Area Law Enforcement database] check, [the complainant] was found to be wanted on a bench warrant. [Complainant] was placed under arrest.
The Human Rights Watch report praises MPD for making some policy changes since its investigation began, and Lanier notes in her letter to the group some of the recent policy changes the department’s made to its sexual assault investigations. But Darehshori tells City Desk that much of the problem isn’t in written procedures, but in a department culture that ignores those rules.
Instead, Darehshori thinks the department requires outside intervention if things are going to get better. The Human Rights Watch report calls for the D.C. Council to create, among other things, a task force and oversight body to investigate how MPD handles sex crimes.
Updated, 12:40 p.m.: Added comment from MPD.
Photo by Darrow Montgomery.