Sexual assault cases are rarely prosecuted, and the conviction and actual incarceration for sexual assault cases are even more uncommon. Perpetrators of these crimes often are repeat offenders, targeting victims because these crimes are so rarely taken seriously.
A study from the University of Massachusetts School of Criminology and Justice Studies found that for “every 100 rapes and sexual assaults of teenage girls and women reported to police, only 18 lead to an arrest….” A recently leaked memo shed light on how the Seattle Police Department’s (SPD) sexual assault and child abuse unit has stopped investigating adult sexual assault cases due to the drastic reduction in the number of detectives in the unit. That underscores the complexity of a long-standing issue: an under-resourced crisis response system, lack of coordination across core responding disciplines, and the need for more trauma-informed, victim-centered, and anti-racist training. These issues have resulted in survivors being left behind, disregarded and often re-traumatized by a system intended to provide relief and some semblance of justice.
Washington State’s Sexual Assault Forensic Examination (SAFE) Best Practices Advisory Group was formed in 2015 to monitor the testing of the backlog of sexual assault kits and advise on a trauma-informed and victim-centered approach to sexual assault cases, among other duties. As members of that group, we feel compelled to respond to the recent media coverage regarding SPD’s stopping of investigating adult sexual assault cases by providing necessary context and a call to action.
While media coverage has focused on the crisis in the Seattle/King County area, the de-prioritization of sexual assault cases is a historic issue across the state, and the nation. Despite the SPD’s obvious lack of transparency, law enforcement is not the only discipline in need of a critical realignment with trauma-informed, victim-centered best practices for handling sexual assault cases.
In response to the SPD crisis, Seattle Mayor Bruce Harrell, working with Interim Chief of Police Adrian Diaz, issued an Executive Order on July 28 providing for the “ … expansion of support services for crime victims and survivors, including ensuring outstanding cases are assigned to a detective and expanding victim support services.” Specifically, the mayor “ … ordered that all felony cases with enough evidence for follow-up be assigned to detectives….” by the end of August. However, a mayoral spokesperson clarified that due to extent of the case backlog and the limited number of detectives available to investigate these cases, not all current cases could be assigned to a detective.
The executive order also mandates “ … an unprecedented evaluation of issues created by SPD’s staffing shortage and systemic problems created over decades, to understand and alleviate the impact on SPD investigations. We are acting to learn from and rectify those challenges to create change, now and long-term.”
Moreover, Washington state has employed millions of dollars to process thousands of untested sexual assault kits, enacted a survivor bill of rights, and increased funding for crime victims to demonstrate that our state cares about sexual assault survivors. Thanks to a directive from the Legislature, the Washington State Criminal Justice Training Commission requires trauma-informed, victim-centered training for all law enforcement involved in a sexual assault investigation. Later this month, the commission is hosting a summit highlighting the “Start By Believing” campaign, a national initiative that teaches first responders how to foster safe and supportive interactions and combat pervasive myths about sexual violence.
There is still work to do:
● Law enforcement and prosecution: In 2020, the King County Auditor’s office issued a report and recommendations to address gaps in how King County’s Sheriff’s Office and Prosecuting Attorney’s Office handle sexual assault investigations. In 2021, the King County Auditor’s Office issued a follow-up report evaluating how the agencies had implemented the recommendations. The report stated that they had “ … made important progress on recommendations to improve their responses to sex offense cases and to meet needs of victims.”
However, the report also determined that despite initially agreeing, the Sheriff’s Office decided not to implement a case triage system. At the time the follow-up report was published, out of the nine recommendations directed at that office, they implemented five and were in the process of implementing two additional recommendations. Additionally, Prosecutor’s Office was in the process of implementing all three of their recommendations from the audit report.
Due in part to the significant progress these offices have made, we strongly encourage each county to review and implement these recommendations, as appropriate for their jurisdiction, to better align with best practices and ultimately, better outcomes for survivors and their communities.
● Healthcare: Access to forensic examinations is crucial to supporting victims, which requires well-trained and supported forensic nurses. Nationwide forensic nurse staffing shortages and retention issues continue to leave victims without options for immediate care. Sexual violence has long-lasting physical and mental health consequences that require a culture of survivor/patient empowerment and support. Trauma-informed approaches should be adopted as universal precautions throughout the continuum of patient care.
When reports of mishandled sexual violence cases make headlines, it is terribly painful for survivors. We are continually reminded of the shortcomings that left most of us traumatized and still without justice. Inaction and de-prioritization will further marginalize survivors, especially communities of color, LGBTQ people, immigrants and refugees, and people with disabilities, who are disproportionately affected by sexual violence.
The work outlined above requires financial and personnel investments, many of which require prioritization from city, county, and/or state representation. Our community needs to stand together in support of the crisis response system.
We must act now to address this urgent crisis