Improving the law enforcement and prosecutorial response to sexual assault cases in Washington state via external annual reviews will provide the necessary tools to advance justice for survivors of sexual violence.
A national investigation by ProPublica, Newsy and Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting reveals how police departments are misrepresenting rape-clearance rates to indicate that police are solving far more rape cases than the actual number of arrests in these cases.
The recent ProPublica national study reviewed rape data from three police jurisdictions in Washington state, including the Seattle Police Department, and Snohomish and Pierce counties. Rape arrest rates were calculated from the data provided by each police jurisdiction for 2014, 2015 and 2016. The most recent surprising data from 2016 indicates that the percentage of rape arrests by Pierce County and SPD were only 7 percent and 8 percent, respectively. By contrast, Snohomish County had a 44 percent rape-arrest rate in 2016. Out of the 64 police jurisdictions evaluated by ProPublica, each jurisdiction serving a population of at least 300,000 people, only four other police jurisdictions (Suffolk County; St. Louis County; Greenville County, South Carolina; and Indianapolis) had a higher arrest rate than Snohomish County.
In reporting rape-clearance rates to the federal government, police jurisdictions are permitted to report rape cases as cleared or closed even when no arrests have been made. In the national federal reporting of this data for 2016, Seattle reported a 13 percent clearance rate while Pierce County reported a clearance rate of 42 percent. Snohomish County reported a clearance rate of 49 percent.
Law enforcement agencies can designate cases as closed or cleared through what is known as “exceptional clearance.” Federal guidelines authorize the “exceptional clearance” classification for use by police departments to “… clear cases when they have enough evidence to make an arrest and know who and where the suspect is, but can’t make an arrest for reasons outside their control.” Even though criminal-justice experts have said that the use of the exceptional clearance designation should be very limited, “… many departments rely heavily on exceptional clearance, which can make it appear that they are better at solving rape cases than they actually are,” according to the ProPublica study. Furthermore, the public cannot freely access exceptional clearance data.
Both the Seattle and the Snohomish County police departments reported 5 percent of rape cases as closed or cleared when those cases were in fact “exceptionally cleared” and no arrest had been made. By contrast, the Pierce County police department reported 35 percent of rape cases as closed or cleared when those cases were in reality exceptionally cleared and no arrest had been made.
In classifying rape cases as exceptionally cleared, police departments most often indicate that arrests were not made in those cases because the victim was no longer cooperating with the investigation or the prosecutor’s office declined to prosecute. In both instances, further investigation and review is warranted to determine why victims are dropping out of investigations and why prosecutors are declining to prosecute these rape cases.
Moreover, these findings clearly identify an imperative for the Washington state Legislature to enact legislation establishing an annual statewide external review of police practices in the investigation of reported rapes and sexual assaults. The national Police Executive Research Forum (PERF) recently determined that the external review of sexual-assault cases should be routine in law enforcement. In its May 2018 report on improving police practices for sexual-assault investigations, PERF determined that the external review of sexual-assault cases should be routine in law enforcement: [to] … ensure that cases are properly classified throughout the police process; that investigators are conducting thorough, victim-centered investigations; and that police actions are appropriate based on the evidence collected. These reviews can help strengthen department policies and practices, and foster stronger partnerships and mutual understanding among all involved.
The Women’s Law Project established the groundbreaking external review of police investigatory practices in sexual assault cases in Philadelphia. This external-review process is now known as the Philadelphia Model and is recognized as a national best practice. External annual reviews of police investigatory practices in sexual-assault cases are ongoing in Philadelphia and New York City, as well as in seven Canadian police agencies.
Pursuant to a Washington state law enacted in 2018, the Washington State Sexual Assault Forensic Examination (SAFE) Best Practices Task Force is developing victim-centered and trauma-informed training practices for law enforcement investigating sexual assault cases. The 2018 statute requires law-enforcement training as part of the ongoing rape kit reform campaign spearheaded by the SAFE Task Force and state Reps. Tina Orwall, D-Des Moines, and Gina Mosbrucker, R-Goldendale.
The SAFE Task Force would be better informed of specific law enforcement training needs with added input from an external review of law enforcement practices. Furthermore, an equal level of external review and accountability is needed for Washington state prosecutors to examine and evaluate why so few rape cases are prosecuted, and why so few rape cases result in convictions and prison time.
Improving the law enforcement and prosecutorial response to sexual-assault cases in Washington state via external annual reviews will provide the necessary tools to advance justice for survivors of sexual violence. That advancement will promote trust in the criminal-justice system and thereby encourage the increased reporting of sexual assaults. Public safety will also be advanced by helping to identify and prevent serial offenders. Ultimately, a statewide external-review model will help establish a foundation for increased public awareness and understanding of the prevalence of sexual assaults in Washington state.