To increase sexual violence reporting, fix law enforcement

As promised, I am following up my last post with one about policing and how it interacts with sexual violence and reporting.

One aspect of this is that police are often trained in ways that lead them to think normal trauma response behavior is a sign of lying. I encourage everyone to read this transcript of a presentation by Dr. Rebecca Campbell, a psychologist who studies, among other things, police response to sexual assault, and trains law enforcement agencies on the neurobiology of sexual assault. Among other things, she has found that 90% of survivors who report experience at least one “secondary victimization” behavior from police (which includes victim-blaming comments and telling them that what happened isn’t serious enough to pursue through the criminal justice system). And 80% of survivors were reluctant to seek any further help from anyone else after their police interaction. On average, 86% of the reports never went further. She also explains trauma neurobiology in very layperson-friendly terms.

This is a really important start. But there’s a lot more.

You have to fix policing, in general, to make reporting to the police a survivor-friendly option. You have to address the sexism and police-perpetrated sexual assault, and also the racism, the homo/bi/transphobia, etc.

A black kid from Ferguson, to use a rather obvious example, who goes off to college next year, and is raped, may not be tremendously likely to want to tell the police about it. Now consider that large numbers of black people – not all by any means, but plenty – feel more or less the same way about the cops as that kid. Now how and why sex workers might feel that way. Now consider it for LGBTQ people, especially if they are trans and/or of color. Now consider it for undocumented immigrants. And in all cases, people in these groups who are suspicious of cops have reasons to do so, some of which are discussed in this post. People with a history of the police treating them or their communities with contempt or violence are going to be less likely to see the police as people who can or would help them in any situation, let alone one as fraught as sexual violence. It’s not particularly uncommon to see people in these groups say that there are many circumstances in which they ostensibly “should” call the police, where they would not – Ta-Nehesi Coates at the Atlantic has written about this. And what if the survivor also engages in behaviors that are criminalized, like drug use or sex work? What will happen to them?

Thanks to the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs, we have some interesting and recent data around LGBTQ/HIV+ communities and domestic violence. In 2013, for the LGBTQ people who talked to NCAVP member programs, in cases where the domestic violence was reported to the police, the survivor was arrested more than half the time, and the survivor experienced physical violence from the police 5.26% of the time, and sexual violence from the police 2.63% of the time. Trans women survivors experienced physical violence 27% of the time! There comes a point where, even if there were no considerations to be had about respecting survivors’ decisions, it would be hard in good conscience to push a lot of people to report.

Are people going to want to call the police if they’re afraid of the consequences of bringing the police into their vulnerable community? After all, a lot of people are raped by their friends, their partners, people that they cared about and may still have some kind of feeling for. Are they going to want to bring police who might beat up the close friend or lover who raped them? Some might be totally cool with that (or even hope for it), but some wouldn’t be. Because contrary to popular stereotypes, being assaulted by someone that you liked/loved and trusted doesn’t mean that you hate them without qualification and want only bad things to happen to them. And that’s okay.

Police families are, depending on the study and the experience level of the officers studied, two to four times more likely than non-police families to experience domestic violence, which, while not the same as sexual violence, has some overlap and similar attitudes and disproportionately-gendered impacts surrounding it. And police officers accused of or even found responsible by their departments for domestic violence are often treated deferentially and leniently by those departments. Would you want to report a rape or sexual assault to people who are statistically unusually likely to be abusing their own partners and kids or to have done so in the past?

You need law enforcement who are properly trained on issues of sexual violence, as I said before. You also need a robust internal affairs/internal accountability process for law enforcement, and survivors need to know how to access that if they aren’t treated well. But to really get the reporting experience to a place where more people consider it a reasonable option, you have to address the problems of oppression in policing. The anti-sexual-violence and anti-state-violence movements are often pitted against each other, but they need each other (I may go into this in more detail in a future post). Fix police brutality, fix police racism, fix police homo/bi/transphobia, fix police sexism, fix over-criminalization – I realize that this may require totally reimagining policing as we know it, or even thinking of being an agent of the law in a conceptually completely different way, and that might be a positive thing – and you’re reducing a major disincentive to reporting. Tall order, I know. Fortunately, there’s a lot of groups out there right now working on improving institutions of law enforcement, from those working on police behavior toward certain demographic groups, to those asking for reforms like police body cameras, to those trying to re-imagine altogether how people in our society are held accountable for harm.

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