An international organization dedicated to exposing human rights abuses across the globe has turned its attention to the nation's capital, accusing the D.C. police department in a blistering report issued Thursday of failing to investigate cases of rape and sexual assault and urging an outside oversight of the department's handling of those cases.
But as stark as the findings of the Human Rights Watch report were, the group — which regularly produces conclusions on a wide variety of topics in the United States — also bluntly criticized the District's police force for its level of cooperation and its openness to the group's findings.
"Human Rights Watch has worked on law enforcement issues in the United States for over a decade and we've never received a response as hostile and defensive as this one," said the study's author, Sara Darehshori. "The tone was surprising. Of course we get that kind of response all the time from dictators overseas when we do our international human rights abuse reporting but this was not really what I expected."
Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier has in recent months criticized draft versions of the report but on Thursday issued a statement moments after the conclusion of a Human Rights Watch press conference, saying, "The report makes sweeping allegations that are not backed up by facts and undermine the credibility of HRW." The chief's statement goes on to say that the study will "ultimately have a chilling effect on victims of sexual abuse and will discourage them from reporting crimes."
As part of its study, Human Rights Watch reviewed 480 cases in which a victim went to Washington Hospital Center between October 2008 and September 2011 and made a sexual assault report to police. The review found that in 170 cases no incident report was filed for the case, meaning no further investigation was completed. Another 34 cases were classified as "office information" and were effectively closed, meaning that more than 200 cases were closed at the time the victim reported the sexual assault and no further investigation was done, Ms. Darehshori said.
The group also interviewed hospital staff, sexual assault victims, victims' advocates and police officials and reviewed internal reports from the police department. In many examples, sexual assault victims said they felt mistreated by detectives, whom some complained did not believe their accounts.
"There is an obligation to investigate all these cases and take them seriously, and no victim should feel worse for having reported to the police," Ms. Darehshori said.
D.C. Council member Tommy Wells, Ward 6 Democrat who was appointed this year to lead the council committee that oversees the police department, said Thursday he would schedule a hearing to review the report and have MPD officials testify.
"The individual stories that the report highlights give me great concern," Mr. Wells said. "I want to do a very thorough review and get thorough responses from MPD, the chief and the mayor."
While recent reports by Human Rights Watch have taken on global issues like forced labor in Eritrea's mining sector and Thailand's treatment of refugees, the examination of police practices is not the first time the organization has turned its focus on law enforcement in the United States. A 2009 report on the Los Angeles Police Department's backlog of rape kits showed that more than 12,000 kits, which could potentially contain DNA or other evidence, sat untested in police storage facilities. Two years later, the city announced that all of the kits within the department's possession had been tested, eliminating the backlog.
Human Rights Watch chose to analyze MPD's handling of sexual assaults after noting the department's unusually high clearance rate for sexual assault cases. Citing 2010 statistics reported to the FBI, D.C. police cleared nearly 60 percent, or 110 out of 184 rape cases, while similarly sized cities averaged 40 percent clearance rates, the report notes. Analysis showed that police only made 22 arrests for all sexual assaults in 2010, closing just 5 percent of all adult sex abuse cases with arrests that year. Cases can be closed for a number of reasons other than through an arrest, including when prosecutors decline a request for an arrest warrant for lack of prosecutorial merit. But investigators must have identified an offender in order to close a case.
As part of its report, Human Rights Watch made a number of recommendations for improved performance within the police department's Sexual Assault Unit, including allowing victim advocates to be present with victims while they are interviewed by detectives and better training detectives on interview and investigative techniques for sexual assault crimes.
Officials made some changes to the Sexual Assault Unit since the department's first interactions with Human Rights Watch, adopting several of the group's recommendations in June after first receiving a summary draft of the report, according to correspondence from Chief Lanier. Among recommendations the department adopted were including treatment of victims as a factor in evaluating detectives' performance, increasing supervision over sexual assault cases, and developing department-wide training on working with sexual assault victims that will be rolled out this year.
After receiving a summary report from Human Rights Watch researchers in May, Chief Lanier wrote to the Department of Justice asking the agency to provide a third-party review of both the report and the department's cases.
Police policies currently in place seem to be fairly solid, said Roger Canaff, a legal expert and former special victims prosecutor who also spoke at the release of the study.
"The issue is where the rubber meets the road," Mr. Canaff said. "I believe the leadership of the Metropolitan Police Department needs to drill down to the police culture itself. The individual attitude of each and every detective who is interacting with victims on a regular basis, that's where the change need to be in place."
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