Most victims of sexual assault never report the crime to police. By some estimates, up to 80 percent of such crimes go unreported. In an effort to change that, the police department in Ashland is pioneering a new approach that lets rape victims call the shots.
Sexual assault is an intimate violation that leaves deep emotional and psychological wounds. And in that raw emotional state, most victims are understandably reluctant to go to the police.
Det. Tighe O’Meara: “We’re increasingly realizing that we have to treat sexual assault investigations much differently than other investigations, because the dynamics are so different from other investigations.”
Detective Sergeant Tighe O’Meara is with the Ashland Police Department. He understands that traumatized rape survivors are usually afraid to approach the often-brusque culture of law enforcement. But he says, the department’s new sexual assault program goes deeper than just trying to be gentle with people who’ve been victimized.
Det. Tighe O’Meara: “We came up with the You Have Options program, which really puts all of the power and control for sexual assault reporting in the hands of the sexual assault survivor.”
That means police in Ashland won’t demand that victims detail their ordeal, or even identify the perpetrator. It’s estimated that eight out of 10 victims know their assailant. When to file a report, or whether to pursue an investigation at all, is the victim’s call.
Det. Tighe O’Meara: “They need to be comfortable with the fact that the police department is not going to investigate. If that person is the one that has to live with or exist with or be in a dorm or a classroom with the person that possibly sexually assaulted them and that we are not going to immediately go out and contact that person unless the victim, the survivor wants us to.”
This so-called “victim-centered” approach to sexual assault investigation acknowledges that rape victims are uniquely vulnerable. And that recognition is spreading.
Capt. Dan Halley is with the Sheriff’s Office in Asotin County, Washington. He trains police and other first responders around the country in dealing with people who’ve been traumatized. He says brain research shows people process their traumatic experiences in different ways. The three main responses, he says, are fight, flight and freeze.
Capt. Dan Halley: “By changing how we respond and allowing people to process those trauma responses, it improves their ability to heal and overcome the event.”
Not only do victims do better, Halley says. People treated this way are also better witnesses for the police.
Capt. Dan Halley: “If someone is in a “flight” trauma response to a particular event, and as a law enforcement officer I’m saying, “You need to stand here and talk to me,” you’re going against what they body says they need to survive. They’re not going to be focused, they not going to provide detailed information.”
Putting rape victims in control also helps reverse a social tendency to shame or blame those victims, a tendency that’s not limited to law enforcement.
Joanne Archambault: “If you ask the average person whether they would blame a sexual assault victim for being sexually assaulted, they’ll say no. But we know that they do.”
Joanne Archambault heads the group Ending Violence Against Women International. She says victims often first tell friends, family or colleagues. If those people are unsympathetic, victims are unlikely to go to the police.
Archambault, a retired police sergeant, says what rape victims need is to be believed, and to be supported in the wake of the trauma.
Joanne Archambault: “So what Ashland is doing, is trying to have victims work in a system that understands that and provides support for them, so that when they’re ready to engage with us, they can.”
Ashland’s program has also gained the interest of the US military, which has been having growing problems with sexual assault in the ranks. Last month, Ashland’s Deputy Chief Cory Falls testified about his department’s new approach before a Congressional panel.
The group is charged with making recommendations about how the military can revise its sexual assault procedures.