Seattle police have noted a 55 percent increase in the number of reported rapes in 2016 over the same time last year. There is no easy explanation, but victims may be feeling more empowered to share their stories, according to one police commander.
They met on Tinder in May 2015 and dated for a couple weeks before she broke up with him, making it clear that she no longer wanted a sexual relationship with him.
After a football game that October, she allowed him to come back to her dorm room at the University of Washington so they could catch up — and that’s when she alleges she was sexually assaulted by the 24-year-old man, who is to stand trial next month on a third-degree rape charge, according to court records filed in the case.
Though the woman’s alleged rape was investigated by UW police, it’s the kind of case involving online connections that Seattle police say they are seeing with increasing frequency. Yet, such investigations can’t fully account for the 55 percent increase in the number of rapes reported as of early September, compared with the same period in 2015. (The increase was reported Tuesday by Seattle Times columnist Danny Westneat.)
• Information on resources and help for rape victims is available from the King County Sexual Assault Resource Network, www.kcsarc.org.
• The Seattle Police Department’s Sexual Assault and Child Abuse Unit can be reached at 206-684-5575 from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday.
The rise in rape reports — 127 so far in 2016, up from 82 a year ago — may be due to victims’ being more likely to contact police as opposed to an indicator that rape itself is on the rise, said Capt. Deanna Nollette, who commands the Seattle Police Department’s Sexual Assault and Child Abuse Unit. Many of the cases now being investigated by the unit’s 14 detectives involve sexual assaults that happened months or years ago, she said.
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While not all rape reports result in criminal charges, they are all investigated, she said.
“We are seeing increased reporting. There’s a number of factors at play, a number of subthemes,” Nollette said. “I think they’re incredibly nuanced and complex cases.”
Other agencies, though, don’t appear to have seen a similar increase, said DeAnn Yamamoto, the deputy executive director of the King County Sexual Assault Resource Center. Her organization offers services to sexual-assault victims whose cases are investigated by the county’s police agencies, excluding Seattle police, which employs its own victim advocates.
“We’ve got 8 to 9 percent more cases” this year, an increase that’s held “pretty steady” over the past two or three years, Yamamoto said.
Last year, the King County Sheriff’s Office investigated 209 rapes involving both adult and child victims, an increase of 10 over 2014, according to spokeswoman Sgt. Cindi West. So far this year, 135 rapes have been reported to the sheriff’s office, which patrols unincorporated King County and provides police services to 12 cities.
Until this year, the number of rapes reported in Seattle in the past five years showed a gradual increase, starting with 91 in 2011. The total was 118 in 2014 and then dipped to 106 in 2015.
Seattle’s 2016 increase is at odds with national rape figures, which show rapes gradually declining since 1998, when the national total was more than 70,000, according to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network. By 2014, the number had dropped to below 30,000.
Of this year’s reports to Seattle police, a number involve delayed reports of sexual assault, some of them from adults reporting childhood sex abuse, Nollette said. Some cases have been reported to police after victims have first taken to social media to discuss being sexually assaulted, she said. Other cases involve people engaging in consensual sexual conduct only for it to veer into criminal territory when boundaries get violated, she said.
“I’m OK with A and B, then you do C — I didn’t say I’d do C and you didn’t ask,” Nollette explained.
While there has also been an increase in the number of rape victims who believe they may have been drugged, Nollette said, her detectives have not yet substantiated a drugging case.
But 1½ months ago, through meetings with police, prosecutors and sexual-assault nurse examiners, it was agreed that blood draws will be routinely performed in cases where intoxication or incapacitation is believed to be a factor, she said. It is a new standard of care for the nurses who perform sexual-assault examinations at Harborview Medical Center.
Even if drugs are found in a victim’s system, “We still have to prove how it got there,” Nollette said.
She thinks some of the increase in the reporting of rapes can be attributed to recent high-profile cases. For instance, Nollette pointed to the sexual assault of an unconscious woman by former Stanford University swimmer Brock Turner. The victim wrote a powerful victim-impact statement that was read in court when Turner was sentenced in June to six months in jail. Her statement was widely circulated online.
“I think it’s empowering victims who previously wouldn’t have come forward … to tell their stories,” Nollette said.
Rapes involving strangers are extremely rare, she said, with the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network putting the number at 7 percent of all sexual assaults. The “vast majority are people known to each other,” Nollette said.
She stressed personal safety, though she worried about placing an unfair burden on women given “there are two partners” in a sexual encounter.
It’s basic stuff: meeting a Tinder date or other online interest in public and monitoring your drug and alcohol use to ensure you’re capable of making good decisions. When out with friends, designate “a safety person” to ensure everyone gets home safe. Talk about sexual boundaries before things get physical.
Most important, especially for male sex partners, “If you don’t have explicit consent to do something, you should be asking for it,” Nollette said.
Senior Deputy Prosecutor Lisa Johnson, who heads the sexual-assault unit at the King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office, said prosecuting rape cases is incredibly difficult given that alleged crimes are often “done in private when people are impaired” by drugs or alcohol.
Still, she sees the increase in reports made to police as a positive sign — even though not all reports will result in convictions — because in some instances they can demonstrate repetitive, serial behavior. Johnson pointed to the sexual-assault allegations against comedian Bill Cosby as an example.
Reporting a rape to police “may not help the one case but it may help our community in the long run and protect other victims,” Johnson said. “Reporting allows those things to get tied together.”