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Review: Mishandling of sexual assaults by D.C. police overstated

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A Human Rights Watch report overstated the Metropolitan Police Department's mishandling of sexual assault cases but has paved the way for legislation that could improve victims' treatment by law enforcement, an independent review concluded.

The review, released Thursday by third-party law firm Crowell & Moring, analyzed a Human Rights Watch report that concluded D.C. police failed to investigate 170 of 480 sexual assault cases during a three-year period. After reviewing police files, the firm determined that in only five cases was the department unable to prove that any investigation had taken place because no associated reports could be produced.

The initial Human Rights Watch report, released in January, immediately came under attack by Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier, who disputed the report's findings.

The Crowell & Moring review concludes that Human Rights Watch researchers used flawed methods — attempting to match dates of sexual assault exams at Washington Hospital Center with police incident reports because they were not provided with the names of victims, which could have yielded more accurate results.

While the results of the report are flawed, the review states, "the victims' complaints it contains are real."

After being provided additional information after the release of the Human Rights Watch report, researchers revised findings but stood by their initial conclusion that the department failed to properly document or classify numerous cases.

The revised data concluded that in 64 instances, rather than 170, victims reported sexual assaults to D.C. police but the department was unable to find documentation of an investigation, and that 89 cases, rather than 33, were classified as "office information," meaning the cases were closed with little investigation.

The independent analysis concludes that the department — which has taken steps to improve its handling of sexual assault investigations — should allow for more independent oversight of investigations. Among the recommendations are the suggestions that an independent specialist in sexual assault investigations serve as an adviser to D.C. police; that sexual assault victims be allowed to be accompanied by a victim advocate during police interviews; that the complaints process be streamlined; and that the D.C. Council regularly review the department's handling of investigations.

"The committee will consider the oversight recommendations very carefully to ensure MPD stays on the right track and that our residents and their cases are treated properly," said council member Tommy Wells, who requested the independent review.

Mr. Wells, Ward 6 Democrat, confirmed that he and council Chairman Phil Mendelson will also draft legislation that could facilitate those recommendations, a move cheered by Human Rights Watch researchers who wrote the original report.

"The most important issue has always been and remains ensuring that reforms to improve the experience for victims and their chances for justice are meaningful, and that requires external oversight," said Sara Darehshori, an author of the report.

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