Home PublicationsCommentary The Criminal Justice System Fails Sexual Assault Survivors, But Data Can Help

The Criminal Justice System Fails Sexual Assault Survivors, But Data Can Help

by Joshua New
Protesting rape

In Baltimore, sexual assault survivors have little reason to believe they will see justice, according to a recent report from the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ). DOJ found that the Baltimore City Police Department (BPD) “systematically under-investigates” sexual assault, in particular by dismissing sexual assault reports, allowing overt gender bias to influence their decisions, and, perhaps most alarmingly, failing to even test 85 percent of rape kits—valuable DNA evidence that could help identify criminals. Unfortunately, the report’s findings should come as no surprise, as not only did BPD draw criticism for these same issues in 2010, but routine mishandling of sexual assault investigations is unsettlingly common throughout the United States. While there are many systemic reasons contributing to why police departments often handle sexual assault cases so poorly, many of these shortcomings—mismanaging evidence, a lack of accountability and transparency, and uninformed decision-making—could be substantially improved through better use of data. Just as the spate of police violence around the country prompted the Obama administration to launch the Police Data Initiative to restore public trust and improve policing practices related to police use of force and discrimination, the DOJ report should serve as a call to action for local, state, and federal lawmakers to use data to improve how police respond to sexual assault and treat survivors.

In sexual assault investigations, evidence from rape kits can be crucial for affirming the identity of suspects, corroborating the accounts of victims, and linking individual cases to identify serial rapists. And yet according to a March 2015 estimate, police departments around the country have yet to test approximately 400,000 rape kits. Advancements in DNA analysis technology in recent years have made processing rape kits easier than ever, but rape kit backlogs have become so substantial that progress has been limited. However, actually analyzing rape kits is only part of the problem, as many states simply do not even report or track the number of untested kits, and at least 50 major police departments have never even inventoried their untested kits. This lack of tracking has caused serious problems for sexual assault survivors seeking justice. For example, in Detroit in 2009, investigators found 11,000 untested rape kits in an abandoned police storage facility, and in Memphis, the police department simply lost rape kits before they could be tested. Some states even destroy untested rape kits before the statute of limitations has expired. Fortunately, increased national attention on the rape kit backlog has led to several high-profile efforts to provide special funding to police departments to process untested kits. However, without good data on the scope of the problem, any funding and policymaking efforts to improve rape kit testing are necessarily under informed.

Prior to DOJ’s recent investigation of BPD, a 2014 analysis of policing data revealed that from 1995 to 2012, the number of reported rapes in Baltimore suspiciously fell by 80 percent, compared to a 7 percent decline nationally. Of course, Baltimore did not actually see an 80-percent reduction in rapes. According to a 2010 investigation by the city’s Sun newspaper, during this period BPD reported a dramatic uptick in the number of sexual assault cases coded as “unfounded.” BPD and other cities not only routinely miscoded reports of sexual assault as unfounded, but also downgraded reports to lesser crimes, and even avoided creating a written record of a report altogether. As a result, BPD and other police departments did not have to report these cases to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, causing potentially over one million rape cases to go unreported in national statistics. DOJ’s recent investigation found that BPD no longer codes as many sexual assaults as “unfounded,” but now reports over half of sexual assault cases as “open,” deliberately misrepresenting the nature of the investigation and despite making no effort to continue an investigation. Poor reporting of sexual assault cases greatly undermines police accountability and public trust in police, as well as skews national statistics which are used for policymaking at the federal level. And, compounded by the fact that sexual assault reporting standards can vary greatly depending on which agency reports it, local, state, and federal policymakers are often unable to effectively understand and respond to sexual assault issues or crack down on bad actors manipulating data.

Bad data about the prevalence of sexual assault, combined with widespread under-investigation of these cases, also contributes to the unsettlingly commonplace narrative that women reporting sexual assault are likely lying. The Sun’s investigation found BPD previously reported 30 percent of sexual assault cases as “unfounded.” In reality, not only do the majority of sexual assaults go unreported, but the best estimates place the number of false sexual assault reports at between 2 and 10 percent. Nevertheless, many police officers exhibit a strong bias in responding to and reporting sexual assault cases based on the assumption that false reporting is common. DOJ’s investigation revealed that BPD officers would disregard reports of sexual assault, fail to gather basic evidence, and even discourage victims from pursuing justice. An American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) survey of sexual assault survivor advocates, attorneys, and service providers in 2015 revealed that over 80 percent of respondents reported police frequently do not believe victims, engage in victim blaming, or simply do not take reports seriously, and as a result, dismiss reports or do not take sufficient action. Even when it is difficult to draw a direct relationship between explicit bias and mismanagement of an investigation, law enforcement’s subtle and subconscious biases, reinforced by bad data, undoubtedly taint the quality and rigor of sexual assault investigations and do survivors a great disservice.

DOJ’s report, coming in the wake of several state and federal legislative efforts to improve law enforcement’s treatment of sexual assault survivors and the Obama administration’s continued progress on the Police Data Initiative, should be a tipping point for policymakers to get serious about using data in the fight against sexual assault. Solutions to specific challenges will be complicated due to the high number of police jurisdictions with their own policies and practices, limited resources, and a variety of other factors, but there are clear solutions that policymakers and police departments should pursue. These include:

  • Police departments should publish aggregated, anonymized sexual assault statistics on open data portals to help restore public trust that police are managing these investigations responsibly and increase police accountability. By making this data publicly available, community advocates can pressure local officials for change and hold police departments accountable.
  • Police departments should develop citizen-friendly websites to provide survivors with private, secure, and easy access to information about their own cases so they could readily learn if a police department dismissed their case as “unfounded” or failed to fully investigate their case.
  • Police departments should agree to use the same detailed reporting standards for sexual assault cases to help investigators more easily identify biased policing practices and improve crime statistics initiatives, which in turn would combat bias in the criminal justice system and better inform policy decisions.
  • Police departments should explore how low-cost sensor technology, such as radio frequency identification (RFID) tags which are already ubiquitous throughout the public and private sector, and inventory management systems could help them cheaply and effectively track rape kits.

Given the wide array of challenges, as well as the many opportunities for data to help, the Obama administration should make improving policing practices around sexual assault a permanent focus of the Police Data Initiative, ensuring that it remains a continued focus for policymakers and police departments in the years to come. Additionally, by tying federal police funding to participation in the Police Data Initiative, the White House could incentivize adherence to best practices around sexual assault. Data alone will not solve the problem of the criminal justice system failing sexual assault survivors. But it can empower communities, police departments, and policymakers to better understand the scope of the problem, hold bad actors accountable, and make better decisions in the fight against sexual assault.

Image: Women’s eNews

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