City Desk

Human Rights Watch: MPD Officers Blame, Intimidate Sex-Crime Victims

In 2011, Sara Darehshori, a senior counsel at Human Rights Watch, got curious about Washington. How did the Metropolitan Police Department have such an unusually low rate of sexual assaults, and how did it manage to clear an unusually high number of the cases it did have? After more than a year of investigating and more than 150 interviews, Darehshori has her answers: MPD's Sexual Assault Unit is so successful investigating sex crimes because, Darehshori reports, they misclassify them, don't investigate them, or intimidate victims into dropping their reports.

From October 2008 and September 2011, MPD had 571 incident reports for sexual assault, according to the report Human Rights Watch released today. But when looking at figures for hospital sexual assault treatment as well as national reporting estimates, that number should be closer to 739 if MPD is conducting its investigations correctly, Dareshori writes. But while the statistics are worrying, anecdotal evidence Dareshori collected from victims about their treatment by MPD detectives is even more affecting.

In a December letter (PDF) to the group, MPD Chief Cathy Lanier slammed the upcoming report, claiming that researchers had misunderstood the department's numbers. For example, while Human Rights Watch writes that there were only 571 incident reports over the almost three-year period, Lanier says the department shared 1,080 with the group. Dareshori tells City Desk that the discrepancy is due to the fact that the extra incident reports, which she says involved children or more minor sex crimes like groping, were not under the purview of MPD's Sexual Assault Unit and thus outside the study. (The Post points out that MPD posted an advance copy of the report on its website earlier this week.)

In a statement released today, Lanier again criticized the reporting, saying that it is based on "flawed methodology" and years-old example, hurting the group's credibility. "What is extremely troubling is that MPD believes that after HRW packs up and leaves their press conference that this report will make some of our most vulnerable victims here in the District of Columbia, the victims of sexual abuse, even more reluctant to report their abuses to the police," Lanier says.

The 197-page report contains countless examples of victims, advocates, and police records alleging outrageous behavior from MPD detectives. Here are some of the worst.

A married woman is told police will tell her husband that she was raped unless she drops the investigation:

When one married victim, Laura T., attempted to report her sexual assault in late 2011, the detective told her he would have to inform her husband in order to proceed with his investigation. “I then asked him please don’t and he said ok – and then he handed me a form to deny ongoing investigation [decline an investigation] so therefore I signed it.”

Police refuse to investigate a case because of a lack of victim testimony, even though the victim is barely conscious:

The complainant was under the influence and had to be woken with an ammonia capsule to be interviewed at the hospital. The case was filed as “office information” because “The complainant did not report a sexual assault.” The police file contained no indication of follow-up with the complainant.

Police blame a runaway for being in a position to be assaulted:

Medical staff overheard a detective tell an 18-year-old runaway who was assaulted in the middle of the night, “You shouldn’t have been outside. This is what happens at two in the morning. What do you expect?”

A female detective compares dirty talk in her own marriage to a victim's rape:

The detective who interviewed Susan D. made several references to her own personal history during the interview. When Susan said she was uncomfortable when her assailant made references to her “tight white pussy,” the detective said, “Honey, that’s not anything. I am half-white and my husband says that kind of thing to me all the time.”

Officers arrest some reporting victims for outstanding warrants:

Upon conducting a WALES [Washington Area Law Enforcement database] check, [the complainant] was found to be wanted on a bench warrant. [Complainant] was placed under arrest.

The Human Rights Watch report praises MPD for making some policy changes since its investigation began, and Lanier notes in her letter to the group some of the recent policy changes the department's made to its sexual assault investigations. But Darehshori tells City Desk that much of the problem isn't in written procedures, but in a department culture that ignores those rules.

Instead, Darehshori thinks the department requires outside intervention if things are going to get better. The Human Rights Watch report calls for the D.C. Council to create, among other things, a task force and oversight body to investigate how MPD handles sex crimes.

Updated, 12:40 p.m.: Added comment from MPD.

Photo by Darrow Montgomery.

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  • No Fan

    MPD is notoriously callous about individual rights and Lanier-she of hog tying fame-is one of the worst offenders. I mean what would you expect of a woman who would allow herself to be seen in public and photographed with that mess, usually dirty, bad color job, bad cut, she calls hair.

    What they do, or at least did, have down for awhile is the ability to manipulate statistics and use these questionable numbers to support whatever lie they are perpetrating at the moment. Remember Ramsey and his buddie's bold faced lies to the Council about the same Pershing Square round up where Lanier came into her own. The only laudable, perversely that is, thing about that was Ramsey's perseverance in sticking to the lies until absolutely exposed as lying outright. Lanier is their protege, cut from the same cloth as Ramsey, Gainer, Cheney, etc. What are a few sex crimes statistics/victims in DC when compared to 4500 dead in Iraq?

    Lanier personifies, and is a product of "a department culture that ignores those rules" so what else would we expect. I mean this woman didn't get where she is on her looks or her brains so its not hard to figure out it must be her willingness to go along to get along.

  • Capitol Hill

    I don't think this problem is isolated to sexual assaults. The MPD successfully used intimidation (berating the victim and threatening take her to jail and rape her) to talk my cousin out of reporting a domestic abuse situation. They tried a similar tactic on me and my roommate when we were burglarized; I knew they had no grounds to arrest us, but a lot of people would rather drop the case than face terrifying threats from the police. I wonder what the crime stats really would be if this sort of thing wasn't going on with such frequency.

  • 20011

    To Capitol Hill's point, I think it goes beyond MPD and is definitely plays a big part at Metro Transit PD: People who are willing to say anything, no matter how cruel, to get out of doing anything more than the bare minimum work.

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  • J

    20011, I'm not sure it's a case of getting out of doing work. In a lot of big cities the police are trained to talk victims out of reporting crimes so the city's crime stats will be lower and it will appear that they are doing something useful. It's a dangerous policy, not only because it's frustrating and scary to the victims but because it makes it harder for the police to track crime patterns and catch the criminals.