Recent reports from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) and the Department of Justice (DOJ) have exposed serious flaws with how the criminal justice system treats cases of sexual assault, doing sexual assault survivors a great disservice and contributing to already high tensions between the public and law enforcement. On October 6, 2016, the Center for Data Innovation and Rise, a leading nonprofit working to protect the rights of sexual assault survivors, hosted a panel discussion to explore how data-driven policies and practices can help the criminal justice system address some of the most pressing issues facing sexual assault survivors.
Due to inadequate reporting practices and definitions at the federal level and the presence of gender bias in law enforcement agencies, statistics on sexual violence are often unreliable. This lack of reliability makes it difficult for policymakers and police departments to make informed decisions and limits their understanding of sexual assault. Improving reporting practices and standardizing definitions of sexual assault across law enforcement agencies can help, but as Matthew Polega, co-founder of law enforcement technology startup Mark43, noted at the event, many police departments might be hesitant to accurately report sexual assault statistics because it could give the impression that crime is increasing. Cindy Southworth, executive vice president of the National Network to End Domestic Violence, agreed, pointing out that jurisdictions that report higher rates of sexual assault are often doing a better job with reporting, whereas low rates are likely indicative of faulty or biased reporting. Fortunately, said Carrie Bettinger-Lopez, the Vice President’s White House Advisor on Violence Against Women, the federal government has recently engaged in multiple efforts to address problems of reporting and bias in policing at the local level, most notably the DOJ’s Guidance on Gender Bias in Policing and the White House Police Data Initiative. And when police departments do make efforts to improve, Polega was confident that they could effectively communicate the context of their reporting changes to explain the reasons behind deviations in their data.
The criminal justice system commonly fails to effectively manage, analyze, and share data about sexual assault cases, which can have severe consequences for sexual assault survivors. Amanda Nguyen, founder of Rise, noted that until only very recently, police in many states do not properly store and track rape kits, which can provide crucial evidence for investigations, causing tens of thousands of kits to go untested or be lost, and making it difficult for survivors to get access to information about the status of their case. In the worst cases, Nguyen described how police in some states would routinely destroy untested kits before the statute of limitations for sexual assault has expired, needlessly destroying valuable data Fortunately, thanks to Rise’s advocacy, on October 7, 2016, President Obama signed legislation prohibiting states from destroying untested kits, ensuring that survivors will be able to use this data to pursue justice.
However, all panelists agreed that not destroying valuable data is only an initial step. Technological modernization in police departments would be crucial for using this data effectively. Polega described how reliance on outdated technologies, often due to lack of funding, can prevent departments from taking even simple steps to improving data management, such as by using sensors and inventory management software to track evidence. Alison Yeloushan from Esri’s Public Safety Team noted that when departments do embrace new technologies, it can bring about a substantial culture shift and make police more receptive to using data to reform their practices, such as how the police department in Fayetteville, North Carolina committed to publishing open data to improve transparency and accountability.
The panel agreed that data would not be a magic bullet to solve the issues surrounding sexual assault. However, with improved data management, better statistics, and modern technologies, police would be better equipped than ever before to combat sexual assault and help survivors get justice.