Study: Sexual Assault Cases Continue to Pose Challenges for Police

Although more sexual assault victims are speaking up, the clearance rate for these cases is at a historic low.

Study: Sexual Assault Cases Continue to Pose Challenges for Police

Only 32 percent of rape cases were successfully closed in 2017. In 1964, the rate was 64 percent. Image: iStock

U.S. law enforcement agencies are now less likely to successfully close sexual assault investigations despite the #MeToo movement prompting more victims to come forward.

That’s according to a new report from the Associated Press, which found that the “clearance rate” for rape cases has fallen to its lowest point since the 1960s. Only 32 percent of rape cases were successfully closed in 2017. In 1964, the rate was 64 percent, despite the lack of DNA evidence.

The low rate signals both progress and continued challenges in law enforcement’s handling of sexual assault claims.

On the one hand, the dearth of successfully closed rape cases might be the result of police being more willing to correctly classify cases and leave them open, despite there being little hope of them being solved. On the other hand, experts say the nadir is also the result of a lack of resources devoted to sexual assault investigations.

The data shows that sexual assault continues to be a difficult crime to address. Some of the reasons these investigations are so difficult include:

  • Many complaints are reported months or years later (only about a third of rapes are reported at all)
  • Detectives have historically discouraged woman from pursuing sexual assault cases against boyfriends, husbands or acquaintances because these cases are hard to prove
  • Some victims stop cooperating
  • Many law enforcement sexual assault units are overworked and understaffed
  • Many cases don’t have corroborating witnesses and physical evidence.

The last point can be particularly challenging. However, according to the Blueprint for University Police: Responding to Campus Sexual Assault, even if there isn’t physical evidence or corroborating witnesses, police and campus Title IX investigators can still prove a sexual assault occurred or didn’t occur by adopting these nine strategies:

  1. Practice interview techniques such as victim debriefing and adapt an “information gathering” versus interrogation approach to suspect interviews to gather information. Understand physical descriptions (e.g. tattoos), smells and sounds the alleged victim remembers.
  2. Document the specific details of the allegations down to condom use.
  3. Gather circumstantial evidence during the investigation, such as a sudden behavior change from the alleged victim. Look for dropped classes, withdrawal from sports or social clubs and a sudden change in academic performance.
  4. Try to establish elements of force, threat or fear if present from either party.
  5. Look for a serial pattern of behavior from the accused by contacting others who may have been victimized by that person, while being careful not to marginalize the accused.
  6. Conduct an extensive sexual assault investigation for corroborating evidence including social media and cell phones.
  7. Evaluate the need for a search warrant.
  8. Consider the utility of a pretext phone call to gather evidence from the accused.
  9. Identify and contact any outcry witness.

About the Author

Robin Hattersley Gray

Robin has been covering the security and campus law enforcement industries since 1998 and is a specialist in school, university and hospital security, public safety and emergency management, as well as emerging technologies and systems integration. She joined CS in 2005 and has authored award-winning editorial on campus law enforcement and security funding, officer recruitment and retention, access control, IP video, network integration, event management, crime trends, the Clery Act, Title IX compliance, sexual assault, dating abuse, emergency communications, incident management software and more. Robin has been featured on national and local media outlets and was formerly associate editor for the trade publication Security Sales & Integration. She obtained her undergraduate degree in history from California State University, Long Beach.

One response to “Study: Sexual Assault Cases Continue to Pose Challenges for Police”

  1. Ed Purchase says:

    Unless I missed it above, another element is the unwillingness of some District Attorney’s to bring a case of sexual assault to trial if alcohol is involved. Imagine being the investigator who manages to put a case together only to get that answer from the DA?

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