According to a report published by Human Rights Watch last week, sexual assault survivors cannot expect anything more than skepticism, dismissal, and victim-blaming when reporting an assault to the District’s Metropolitan Police Department. The report, which clearly exposes MPD’s mistreatment of survivors as well as their mishandling of sexual assault cases, uncovers a wealth of damning evidence that points to the urgency with which reform of MPD’s approach to sexual assault crimes must be carried out.
Between 2009 and 2011, more than one-third of assaults reported by survivors at Washington Hospital Center, D.C.’s largest private hospital, were not documented in MPD records. Of the incident reports that managed to get filed, more than 10 percent failed to undergo full investigations and were closed prematurely by MPD. In part, this occurred because sexual assault cases are frequently misclassified as cases involving lesser offenses, as found by HRW.
Although MPD reported that 110 out of 184 sexual assault cases cleared in 2010, HRW found that only 22 arrests for sexual assault were made that year. 2010’s exceptionally high clearance rate of 59.8 percent far surpasses the average rate of 40 percent in similarly-sized cities, raising suspicions that MPD is manipulating their data.
In addition to reporting artificially low statistics, MPD officers were found to have further traumatized sexual assault survivors by frequently treating them with disrespect. The discourse employed by insensitive MPD officers was found to be rife with victim-blaming and victim-shaming. One account describes a detective’s response to a survivor’s story of kidnapping and repeated sexual assault: “You are only doing this to get immigration status, aren’t you?” Police treatment of sex workers is even worse—some officers have been known to demand sex in exchange for not arresting workers on prostitution charges.
Although Georgetown employs a full-time trauma specialist to deal with sexual assault on campus, and DPS has an entire team dedicated to the investigation of sex abuse cases, it is estimated that as few as one in 12 sexual assaults are reported to University authorities. This most likely has to do with the culture of victim-blaming that persists in our university culture, as well as the negative reputation of the University’s Judicial Hearing Board regarding sexual assault cases. When one in four Georgetown women is sexually assaulted before she graduates, we know our system is broken.
Evidently, our school and our city can do better to halt the tragedy that is sexual assault. Given the recent failure of Congress to renew the Violence Against Women Act, our nation would also do well to heed the warnings of HRW’s report. As concerned students and citizens, we call not just on MPD but on decision-makers at all levels to ensure that reporting a crime is not more traumatizing than rape itself. We call on them to empower all who experience sexual abuse to feel like the survivors they are and spare no expense in catching perpetrators, because it is only by bringing these heinous criminals to justice that we will be able to live in a society safe for all.