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Advocating for Victims of Sex Crimes During the Police Investigation

"It's difficult enough to deal with the physical and emotional effects of having to fight to protect yourself from the person who hurt you," says one woman, "But to also have to fight the system that's supposed to protect you is too much. It's why so many women back off."



~ PART 1 ~


~ PART 2 ~


~ PART 3 ~



No other serious crime is treated more poorly by the criminal justice system than rape and other sex crimes. As the victim's advocate, friend, or family member, you may to be all that stands between police disregard and the victims' urgent need for protection and justice. Nowhere is your skillful advocacy more needed, and nowhere can you make more of a difference, both for the individual victims and for their communities.

The good news is that with a few tips and some basic knowledge, you can almost always get a better response from police, and you can often get a bad police response corrected. This text aims to help you do exactly that. In addition to helping you support the victim through the process, it should help you monitor and evaluate the police response, prevent abusive police behavior, and help you intervene effectively when things aren't going as they should.

First, you need to understand the environment you're working in, and what this means for your role as advocate:

Over the last four decades, sex crime laws have been modernized. Specialized investigation techniques have been standardized, police have been trained and retrained, and media have trumpeted the progress. Yet, numerous studies, both in the U.S. and in other developed countries, reveal that, even today, no more than between 2 to 6% of rapists ever spend a day in jail. In terms of meaningful enforcement of sex crime laws, there has been little or no real improvement over the last forty years.

Barriers Old and New

Official excuses given for this wrenching discrepancy only add insult to injury. These cases, they say, "are difficult to prove", "are 'he said, she said'", "have uncooperative victims", etc.

But a recent 2010 National Institute of Justice study** of sex crime detectives and frontline officers from multiple police agencies puts the blame squarely where it should be, and confirms what most advocates already know to be the reality.

The NIJ study finds that, indeed, police have learned to give "politically correct" answers, but, as the following excerpt from the study abstract makes clear, the mind set of most police is still locked and loaded against sex crimes victims, and stubbornly unwilling to change.

From the NIJ study abstract:

"Still, the findings from administering the rape scale to the officers indicate that despite many years of training, a large number of police officers still hold attitudes and opinions that undermine their ability to treat rape victims well. The officers were almost unanimously opposed to changing to a system of investigation and case processing that gives priority to protecting victims." ........

"Among the police officers in this study, there was virtually no interest in and some strong resistance to examining innovative and improved ways of investigating and managing rape cases. The dominant theme in current investigative techniques is the presumption that victims are lying and the initial job of the investigators is to expose it." (emphasis ours)

** Police Investigation of Rapes - Roadblocks and Solutions, scroll down linked page for study abstract and link to full document.

What's new then is that police have learned to cloak their sexism and misconduct in rhetoric that will make the public think they've progressed while, at the same time, police are continuing to deny protection and justice to sex crimes victims. On the one hand, this 'politically correct' rhetoric can sometimes make it more difficult to see the police abuse as it's happening. On the other hand, police desire to appear progressive on sex crimes can often be used to leverage needed corrections.

Your Role as Advocate

It isn't every police officer who responds badly. But, given that every sex crimes victim has a right to protection and justice, and given that sexist attempts by police to ditch these cases is more the norm than the exception, the critical nature of your job as advocate is clear. The victim needs to be prepared for a range of possible police responses. The police responses need to be monitored and evaluated at every step, and advocates need to be willing to intervene when officials get off the track.

Sometimes you can coax and cajole officials into doing things right. Other times you have to apply escalating pressures to break through the police rigidities and roadblocks. But in almost any case, your skillful advocacy can greatly improve the system's responses to sex crimes victims, either by preventing abuses in the first place, or by responding quickly to get corrections made.

This text certainly won't cover every circumstance you might encounter. But it should give you enough orientation to feel confident in standing strong for sex crime victims and their rights. Naturally, it's assumed that you won't take any action on behalf of a victim without first fully informing them of their options, and making sure that your actions are always in accord with the victim's wishes. If the victim is a child or teen, it's hoped that you'll find ways, if appropriate, to work together with the victim and a protective parent or guardian.

Though this text can be useful in cases of sex trafficking and commercial sexual exploitation, it doesn't cover the special additional skills and information needed for advocating on those cases. For more detailed help and resource lists for those cases, see, A Guide for Mothers, Grandmothers, and Others for Helping a Girl Caught in Prostitution or Sex Trafficking

Also, though it's important to remember that both females and males are victims of sex crimes, we sometimes refer to the victim as "she" for ease of language.

General Tips

This text focuses on advocating for victims during the police investigation. But as critical as protection and justice are for the victim, the criminal case itself is unlikely to succeed if the victim's other vital needs aren't being met.

So at the same time as you're dealing with the complexities of the criminal case, it's equally as important to keep an eye out:

    1. That the victim has support from family and friends. If the victim wishes, help her bring these friends into the process. In addition, keep a special watch out that any social circle the victim shares with the perpetrator isn't being turned against her by the perpetrator and his friends, whether it be at school, work, family, church, or neighborhood.

    2. That the victim's housing, job, and/or school are safe and secure.

    3. That the victim is connected to appropriate counseling that is working for her.

    4. That the victim is getting good communication all around and has good sources of information.

    5. That the victim has help in starting and keeping a notebook. It's very difficult for traumatized persons to keep track of details, especially regarding the complexities of an unfamiliar legal process. Helping a victim start and keep a notebook not only helps the victim keep track, it helps put them back in control.

    6. That you, yourself, have multiple ways to contact the victim. Sex crimes victims often move to other places or stay with friends when they feel unsafe. They forget about keeping cell batteries charged, and bills paid. Their voice mail often isn't cleared. Or they just become too immobilized to keep in touch. Always ask the victims if there is one person they will likely always be in touch with, and ask if you can contact that person if the need arises.

When a Victim Comes to You
Prior to Reporting to Police

When a sex crimes victim comes to you prior to reporting to police, you have an excellent opportunity to prepare the victim and prevent many of the pitfalls that so commonly occur at the beginning of police investigation. In addition, you can help arrange that the victim is accompanied by an advocate and friend of her choice. You can explain the process, it's common early problems, her rights, and you can address her specific fears and concerns.

In short, when a victim comes to you prior to reporting to police, you have the opportunity to get the criminal case off to a good start.

Naturally, you don't want to overload someone with more information than they can handle. As always, your careful listening will help you taylor the information to what the individual most needs. But, the following are some of the points to consider.

a) Explain that there will likely be points in the police handling of the case where one officer or another may be sexist, judgemental, inappropriate, or attempting to shove the case aside. Explain that things have gotten better for sex crimes victims, but they definitely aren't perfect yet. If she feels that she or the case isn't being treated properly, it's not her fault, and it's not time to panic. It's time speak up and get help immediately.

The good news is most bad police responses can be corrected, especially when caught early.

b) Explain these common early stumbling blocks in sex crime cases. Most police departments don't allow sex crime victims to report directly to a detective, even though it's a detective who will likely be doing the investigation. Victims are usually required to report first to a patrol officer. This patrol officer, however, will only take a cursory, 'just the basics', report. When victims aren't made aware of this ahead of time, this cursory initial response can sometimes leave them feeling that their case is not being taken seriously.

After taking a 'just the basics' report, or during the process of taking the report, the patrol officer will generally call an on-call detective to consult on what to do next. It may be that the detective will ask for a medical rape exam, at which point the detective may or may not meet the victim at the hospital to do the in-depth interview there.

However, if a medical exam is not ordered, or, if the detective does not meet and interview the victim at the hospital, the victim will generally be told to go home and wait for a detective to call her in the next couple days. The victim usually isn't even given the name of the detective. This is because, absent a medical exam, there generally won't be a detective assigned until the patrol officer's case gets sent to the detective unit where the case will ultimately be assigned. This can take a day or two, but shouldn't be longer.

Imagine how frightening this is to a victim who doesn't understand this protocol ahead of time. She has just reported one of the worst events of her life to police. She's told to go home and wait for a call from an un-named detective, and she doesn't know when. She's scared and anxious and beside herself. Left to flail in limbo, quite understandably, many victims panic.

These maddening bureaucratic police hurdles are unforgiveable. Explaining the protocol to victims ahead of time doesn't remove the exasperation, but at least it keeps the victims from panicking. Another thing that can help is giving the victim the number of the detective unit so that she, or you, can take the active step of calling in to find out if the case has been assigned yet, and to whom.

c) Explain that sex crimes suspects usually are not arrested right away, and that this doesn't mean the police don't believe you. Interrogating and/or arresting the suspect is usually the last thing police do in a standard sex crime investigation. Unfortunately, unless you explain the usual delay in sex crimes arrests, victims often conclude that police don't believe in the case.

In fact, if police immediately go out and interrogate the suspect before doing a thorough investigation, this should be a red flag to you and the victim that police may be throwing the case.

d) Explain the importance of telling the whole truth as soon as possible.


One of the most common and serious faults in police response to sex crimes is that so many officers believe a hugely exaggerated percentage of victims are making false reports. As the NIJ study abstract referenced in the introduction states, "The dominant theme in current (rape) investigative techniques is the presumption that victims are lying and the initial job of the investigators is to expose it."

Making this situation even worse is the fact that when sex crimes victims come to police they are usually much more tentative and guarded than victims of other crimes. Sex crime victims know instinctively that, one way or another, they're likely be judged, blamed, disbelieved or shamed. As a result, many try to tell their stories in a way to get around details they feel might trigger those judgements or disbelief.

The tragically predictable result, of course, is that the moment the police sense they're not getting the whole truth, they jump to their sexist conclusions that the victim is probably making a false report. And as soon as the victim senses this judgemental response from police, the victim withdraws and withholds even more. The vicious cycle spins ever downward, and the case all too often goes with it.

Short of changing police mentality, which clearly needs to be done sooner rather than later, the immediate solution is to help the victim understand this dynamic, and then help her find ways to tell her full story comfortably, truthfully, and hopefully the first time around.

Explain this problem to the victim. Talk with her about some of the things other sex crimes victims often have trouble talking about; use of drugs or alcohol, the amount of drugs or alcohol, having disobeyed parental or school rules, being out of a probation zone, going out on another, prostitution, minor illegal activities, or just the usual personal or sexual things normal people want to keep secret, but are almost always part of a sex crime story.

Tell the victim that whatever part of her story may be difficult to tell, it will almost certainly come out in the end. Tell her that you will help her deal with whatever fallout may result. And that even if she was doing something illegal, police will almost always ignore a minor crime when the individual is a victim of a major crime like a sex crime.

JUST SAY 'NO' TO POLYGRAPHS!!!!! Sex crime victims should not be asked to submit to polygraphs, and should not submit to them if asked. Still, there are many police departments that continue to routinely ask victims to take polygraphs. Victims should refuse to take these tests. And as the victim's advocate you should stand by her and argue her case to the requesting officer, and all the way up to the chief or DA if necessary.



Other things that may be helpful to discuss before the victim calls the police:

a) The importance of being accompanied by a friend and advocate at all justice system interactions. Offer to help her arrange this, either by brainstorming with her who she might call, or by directly making some of the calls yourself to encourage her friends to help.

b) The importance of getting all her questions answered, and of speaking up right away when things don't feel like they're going right, and especially if she's being harassed on any front.

c) Her rights - her statutory right to be accompanied by a friend and advocate throughout the process, her right not to be harassed, her right to be protected by police, her right to refuse parts or all of the medical exam, in particular, her right to refuse blood and urine tests, her right not to talk to any member of the defense team, etc.

d) Help her to begin thinking about the evidence and evidence leads in her case. If she's willing, it's often very helpful to go through her story with her and point out the kinds of things that can be evidence, a process we detail in the section on the victim interview.

e) The importance and benefits of the victim keeping a notebook on her case.

f) Explain basics of Cop-Speak. It's hard to think of two communication styles that are more mismatched than that of the average police officer and the victims of sex crimes. Police communicatio style is usually authoritarian, in control, hardened and concrete. The sex crime victim communication is often frightened, fragile, emotional, and fragmented, all of which makes too many police just want to get back out on the streets as fast as possible to do 'real crime'.

It's the cops of course who need to change and who have the duty to respond appropriately. But often it's the victims who are quick to adapt when given an idea ahead of time of what to expect.

Making the Initial Police Report

a) Even if some time has passed since the offense, make the initial call to 911 or to the police dispatch line. There are a number of reasons for making the first call through 911 or through police dispatch. These calls are taped and preserved, and can be a significant source of evidence. In addition, if police later excuse their downgrading or mistreatment of the case by saying the victim didn't report a rape, the dispatch or 911 tape comes in very, very handy to prove otherwise.

Remember, literally thousands and thousands of rape cases, in police departments large and small around the country, are ditched by police in exactly this way; i.e. by police filing the report under a lesser crime category and then saying the victim was only reporting a simple assault or an argument, not a rape.

If you don't know the number of your police dispatch line, just call the police business number and ask.
Have the victim call 911 or dispatch and say exactly the nature of the crime she wants to report. Help her find the right words before getting on the call.

b) Make sure victim is accompanied when the officer arrives. We keep repeating this point, but that's because it's so important. Sex crimes victims should never meet with law enforcement alone. Being accompanied prevents many police abuses, provides witnesses to police behaviour, and provides support to the victim.

c) As mentioned above, the responding officer will likely only take a cursory report, sufficient enough to establish the nature of the crime in advance of having a detective do the in-depth interview later. Nonetheless, the responding officer should treat the case seriously, should not make judgements about the case, should call an on-call detective to determine the next step, and should gather any and all perishable evidence.

If the victim is reporting within 72 hours of the attack for an adult, or if there are any possible visible sexual injuries, no matter how much time has passed, a medical forensic should be ordered. If the victim is a child, and there was penetration, a medical forensic exam should be ordered no matter how much time has passed.

d) Before leaving, the responding officer should give the victim a crime report number (CR #) and the crime category of the investigation. If the victim is not given this information, you or the victim should call an on-call sergeant right away to obtain that crime report number and the specific crime category under investigation.

The reason it's critically important to obtain the designated crime category under investigation is because one common way police departments get rid of sex crimes cases is by filing the case under a lesser crime category.

The crime category under investigation is always designated on the face sheet of the police report. As such, it is information police must give out to any member of the public.

If the case hasn't been given a CR #, or if it's being filed under a crime category that is lesser than what the victim is reporting, it's a strong indication the case is likely being intentionally ditched. If you can't get this corrected with a phone call, don't hesitate to go quickly up the ranks to the chief, the DA, or city council. Such attempts to bury the case need to be corrected immediately.
Remember, thousands upon thousands of sex crimes are discarded in this way by police departments around the country. Don't let this happen to your client!

e) The responding officer should also inform the victim of what's going to happen next. If a medical exam has not been ordered, the initial report will usually be sent to the detective unit where a detective will be assigned to investigate the case. This may take a day or two, but it should not take any longer than that.

If it does take longer than a day or two for a detective to be assigned, again, go up the ranks immediately! This is another common way police ditch sex crimes cases. They drag their feet for days, weeks, or even months, knowing most sex crimes victims find it extremely difficult to complain. Then they only work the rare cases where the victims do complain. Don't let any unnecessary time delay sink your client's case or cause her to suffer unnecessary exasperation! Pick up the phone and complain!

f) A sexual assault medical forensic exam of the victim, commonly called 'the rape exam', may or may not be requested by police.
The medical forensic exam is a police evidence exam and can be a valuable source of physical evidence in sexual assault cases. These exams are usually conducted by a specially trained nurse examiner in a hospital or clinic setting. Usually, in the case of adult victims, if the case is reported within 72 hours of the assault, police should request the exam. If there are significant injuries, or if the victim is a minor, a medical forensic exam should usually be ordered even when the victim is reporting the attack after 72 hours.

As important as these exams can be to the successful prosecution of sexual assault cases, victims may find these exams to be intrusive and should know that they do not have to consent to these exams. On the other hand, a completely different dilemma can result from the fact that these exams are expensive. Police may fail to request the exam, when, in fact, the case circumstances indicate the exam should be carried out.

As such, there are a number of things victims and advocates should be alert to in regard to the medical forensic exam:

* Evaluate whether the police decision to request, or not to request, a medical forensic exam is the best decision for the case.

* Inform the victim of her right to be accompanied by an advocate and support person of their choice throughout the exam.

* Inform the victim that she should not be charged for the exam. Police should pay for the exam. (At present, in most all states, police do automatically pay for these exams.)

* Inform the victim she has a right to refuse to consent to the exam in whole or in part. In particular, the victim should carefully consider whether or not to give blood and urine samples to the examiner as this gives police unlimited search and chemical testing access to the victim's blood and urine. The victim also has a right to refuse consent to be examined by an examiner of a given sex.

* Even if the victim has signed a written consent to the exam, she can withdraw that consent at any time during the exam, simply by telling the examiner that she doesn't want them to do x,y, or z.

* If a victim exercises the right to refuse to consent to the exam in whole, or part, or under certain circumstances, police should never threaten the victim with refusal to investigate the case because the victim won't submit to the exam. If an officer does make that threat, you and the victim should immediately complain to the officer's superior

* At the same time, in making her decisions, it's important for the victim to take into account that refusing to consent to the exam can mean the loss of significant case evidence.

* Following the exam, the victim and advocate should closely monitor whether or not the sexual assault evidence kit is being processed in a timely manner. This is especially important because in the last few years literally tens of thousands of rape kits around the country have been found to be stashed away, unprocessed, in police warehouses.

Pick Up the Phone! Stay in Touch with the Investigating Officer! And Don't Forget Email!


The simple act of staying in touch with the investigating officer can often make a tremendous difference in improving the quality of the investigation, and preventing police from trying to shelve or ditch the case.

Simple informational, 'stay in touch' calls to police, such as to ask about the CR #, the detective assignment, what happens next, or just 'how's it going', do much more than just get you information. When you, the advocate, make these calls, it sends the strong message to police that someone else cares about the victim, and is watching over her and the case. When the victim makes these calls, it sends a strong message to police that this isn't a victim who can be easily rolled over.

So throughout the investigation of the case, pick up the phone frequently, and encourage the victim to do the same. If possible, establish an easy going working relationship with the detective. Express enthusiasm for progress made. Mix appropriately with any requests for improvements. And, when needed, make it known that, one way or the other, you're determined that the victim and her case will be handled properly.

Don't forget email! In addition to the obvious conveniences, email communication between sex crimes victims and law enforcement has significant advantages. It maintains what can be an all important record of those communications. And it helps overcome the frequent clash of communication styles between sex crime victims and law enforcement. The written words usually tend to even out the differences.

Another advantage, of course, is that email makes it possible to have open three way communication between the investigator, the victim, and the advocate, and with as many other people as the victim wishes to copy in.



If the Client Has Already
Reported to Police

If a client seeking your help has already reported to police, she may be coming to you merely to seek additional services, such as counseling or other victim services. Or, it also may be that she's coming to you now because she senses things aren't going right with the case. Sometimes victims will tell you this outright.

Often, however, when a sex crime victim senses things aren't going right with the case, they can't believe it's happening. It was hard enough to report the crime in the first place. If things didn't go well, victims now feel so unsure of themselves, so conflicted and confused, they find it near impossible to turn around and complain about the police.

In addition to feeling newly retraumatized, they don't know exactly who you are, or where you fit in the system. So start by taking some extra time to build some trust, explain your role, listen, and ask some basic questions.

a) Ask the victim, or the victim's parent, basic questions about the status of the case. What's the case crime report number? Who is the detective? Does she know how to get a hold of him or her? Where is the case in the process? And what's going to happen next?

If the victim doesn't know the answer to those questions, explain that it's not her fault. Explain that it was the investigator's role to make sure the victim is informed, particularly in sex crimes cases.

b) If she's not informed, start by picking up the phone and finding out the answers by calling the police sex crimes unit and/or the district attorney's office. Getting that information, alone, is often a big relief to victims. Explain how you're getting the answers so she knows how to do it for herself at any time in the future. Make sure she has all the needed phone numbers written down.

c) Now you can start from the beginning, step by step, going through the police responses and timeline. What are the victim's major concerns? How did the victim feel about the response she got from the police? Did they take the case seriously? Did they follow up on evidence leads? Did they express concern for her safety? Give feedback on your thoughts.

Here's a form that should help you and the victim evaluate the case investigation: Form for Evaluating Police Response to Rape and Sexual Assault

d) If there seem to be problems with the way the case has been handled, it's so important to tell victims that it's not their fault, and it has nothing to do with the case itself. It usually helps victims tremendously when you tell them that police, in general, do not handle sex crimes well, and that many victims have the same problems she's having. At the same time, tell her that one way or another, the mistakes can probably get corrected.

e) Go over options for getting problems corrected. See the last section of this text. When Push Comes to Shove; How to Make the System Fly Right


Go To: Part 2, Advocating for Victims of Sex Crimes During the Police Investigation

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