The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
November 20, 2014

Police failure to investigate rape cases goes beyond New Orleans

November 20, 2014

Once again, Louisiana is in the news for its poor treatment of rape victims. This time, the story is the New Orleans Police Department’s routine failure to investigate sexual assault claims. Stories in the Times-Picayune detail how investigators ignored women’s claims, didn’t submit rape kits for testing, and didn’t follow up when kits came back with DNA hits or when suspects were identified. One officer is even cited as saying that rape while a victim is intoxicated should not be considered a crime.

This bias and lack of effort left those seeking help feeling re-victimized and may further deter already reluctant victims from reporting these crimes. As it is, only one in three female sexual assault victims reported her assault to police in 2010, according to the latest national data.

In our recent study, we heard similar stories. We examined sexual assault case processing in 19 jurisdictions across the country by interviewing local stakeholders (rape victim advocates, police, prosecutors, and sexual assault nurse examiners) and victim focus groups. These interviews revealed a variety of negative experiences between victims and the criminal justice system in several jurisdictions. Victims were not believed, were told their cases were too complicated, or were dismissed because of their own substance use during the incident. As one victim said:

I go to see the detective… and he decided that I was a drug addict whore and that was the end of the case….I told him how hard it was and how scared I was. I was crying. I’m showing him text messages from this guy, like threats and sexual things and threats and sexual things nonstop. And he just said, “Well, I don’t know what you expect me to do.” It was a throwaway phone, so you can’t trace those or anything. “What do you want me to do? Nothing I can do about that.” I was so upset. I was just like, “Yup, thanks for your time. Goodbye.”

Another victim described police officers’ indifference in pursuing her case:

It was their demeanor and their tone. They [the police]were just saying, “Well, if you want to press charges, this is what is going to happen, but it doesn’t look like you have any physical harm done, so most likely we’re not going to prosecute.” Yeah. And then afterwards they said, “Well, do you want to press charges?” And I said yes, and then maybe like a couple of weeks later they said, “Oh, we didn’t really follow up.” …They knew the guy’s address, and they had his phone number, and they had a copy of his driver’s license….They knew where he was staying at and they refused to go interview him….They didn’t interview him until maybe like two to three months later. And they said that’s because our local prosecutor is most likely not going to prosecute. And so it was just going to be a case of “he said, she said,” so it doesn’t really matter whether or not we interview him.

It does not have to be like this. In other jurisdictions, advocates and nurses told us that law enforcement treated victims well, in general, and were ardent about building strong cases. One innovative prosecutor told us that corroborating evidence can be found for every case, so there is no such thing as a “he said, she said” case. According to her, it is the prosecutor’s job to find and gather that corroborating evidence and present it to a jury. We also interviewed victims who were satisfied with the police response and found justice through the legal system.

“When my friend took me to the police department and right then and there they were, like, on it, you know,” one victim said. “And the detective on the case… he believed me.”

Another victim said: “When it went to the DA’s, that was fairly quick. And then within two weeks, he was arrested. I couldn’t even believe it, they had so many warrants out for him. And the advocate at the DA’s called me [and said]… ‘I just wanted to let you know that we picked up [the suspect] three minutes ago.’…That shows they care, like, three minutes…that meant so much to me.”

The passage of the Violence Against Women Act in 1994 started a movement to hold those who perpetrate rape and sexual assault accountable for their crimes. Last year’s reauthorization of the Act included further resources to realize this goal. As this week’s news shows, we still have a ways to go. It’s time to roll up our sleeves and get to work.

Photo: In this March 1, 2012 photo, rape survivor Helena Lazaro poses for a photo in Glendale, Calif. Police gathered DNA that would have identified her attacker but for seven years failed to process it. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes)

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