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John Choi: We need to do better, Rape Study Shows

Thursday, May 3, 2018  
Posted by: Laura Fenstermaker
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From Minnesota Lawyer

A two-year Ramsey County study of rape cases shows that many victims who report assaults to law enforcement have difficulty staying connected with investigators and eventually drop out.

Victims also face long wait times and get little information about the status of their cases. And some law enforcement agencies find it difficult to staff up enough to do thorough investigations.

Those are some of the findings from a two-year study by assistant Ramsey County Attorney Kaarin Long, commissioned by County Attorney John Choi and launched in the summer of 2016.

“We need to do better,” Choi said at a press conference Friday.

Choi said existing literature on sexual assault suggests that one in six women will report being sexually assaulted at some point in their lives. But no more than 20 percent of those assaults get reported to law enforcement.

Locally, Long’s survey indicates, when investigations were done by East Metro police agencies, at least two-thirds never got referred to Choi’s office for prosecution. Just over a quarter of victims who reported an assault eventually halted the investigation, the study shows.

“Victims experience long waiting times and periods with little information about the status of the investigation or the prosecution,” Choi said. One key reason: Only a tiny percentage of victims can access sex-assault advocates who can help them navigate the system, Choi said.

Teri McLaughlin, executive director of the Minnesota Coalition Against Sexual Assault, said Ramsey County already has a “strong response to sexual violence.” But she credited the county attorney for examining and publishing the report on his office’s internal practices—a system she said many victims find “mysterious and intimidating.”

“Sexual assault remains one of the most under-reported crimes,” she said. “We still have a long way to go in building that trust.”

Long’s report, “The Ramsey County Sexual Assault Systems Review,” is a product of the county’s “Start By Believing” campaign launched in April 2016. That project involves prosecutors, academia, public health officials and law enforcement. Government officials were also engaged, Choi said.

Key recommendations

Long’s report lays out several key “systems response” recommendations for police and prosecutors:

  • “Start by believing” — officials must take sexual assault reports at face value and investigate them accordingly, the report says.
  • Incorporate sexual assault advocates early in the investigation process to support and inform victims as cases progress.
  • Develop adequate investigative units to assure law enforcement can handle the inherent challenges of sex assault cases.
  • Track cases, even after they are referred for prosecution.
  • Coordinate with other law enforcement agencies to smoke out potential repeat offenders.
  • Increase the rate of race data collection and documentation, both on victims and suspects.

The report also recommends that the Ramsey County Attorney’s Office develop benchmarks other than convictions to gauge success in battling sexual assault.

“Justice is not a basketball game,” Choi said. “It’s not about trying to score a hundred baskets—it’s about doing the right thing in these situations.”

As an alternative, the report suggests that the office start measuring the time it takes to process cases, and tracking how early and often prosecutors meet with victims. It should also develop a new “victim-centered demeanor” when interacting with victims, the report says.

“The most important factor in improving our overall response is to focus on continuous improvement,” it says.

As part of those efforts, Choi’s office announced Friday it is transferring $287,000 from its criminal forfeiture account to the St. Paul Police Department to hire two new sex-crimes investigators.

Meanwhile, the county’s Board of Commissioners is allocating $225,000 to hire two new county victim-services advocates, bringing the county’s total to seven.

“This is about finding a way to do better,” Ramsey County Board chair Jim McDonough said. “This is about sending a message that Ramsey County is a start-by-believing county.”

St. Paul Police Chief Todd Axtell said his department plans to put its sex-crimes investigators through a series of training courses before the end of the year. They will help investigators shift focus from the “technical side of their job to the emotional side of their job,” the chief said.

The training also will help investigators be more supportive of victims by connecting them more quickly to advocates, and it will teach them to better understand perpetrators.

“This is a watershed moment for law enforcement and our entire community,” Axtell said.

Dire statistics

Maplewood, Roseville and St. Paul police, the Metro Transit Police Authority, the New Brighton Public Safety Department and the Ramsey County Sheriff’s Office all appointed staff to assist Long in conducting the survey. Sexual assault advocates and academics also were consulted.

Long surveyed 646 sexual assault cases, 317 of which were initially reported to St. Paul police. Ramsey County’s Sheriff’s Office took 110 of the complaints, while Maplewood police took in 96 initial assault reports. The rest are scattered among the other reporting agencies.

Among police reports reviewed, just 192—29.7 percent—were referred to the Ramsey County Attorney’s Office for potential prosecution. Well under half of those referred—just 37 percent—were criminally charged; fully 60.4 percent were declined. About 2.6 percent of referrals had other results, such as further investigation requested, the report says.

Of the cases criminally charged, Choi said Friday, the total conviction rate was 70.3 percent during the review period. While that might sound good, he said, it’s not necessarily a positive.

“What it means probably is that we really need to be thinking about what kinds of cases are we charging,” he said. “And should we be taking some additional chances on other cases?”

Overall, 89.3 percent of assault victims were female and 10.1 percent were male. In roughly 0.8 percent of cases, victims identified as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or queer. Fully 92.7 percent of suspects were male.

The reports shows that in the vast majority of cases—81.6 percent—victims either sustained no injury or reported pain without observable injury. “It is common to find minimal or no physical or anogenital injury after sexual assault,” the report says.

Part of what makes that statistic significant, McDonough said, is that it indicates a significant number of sexual assaults are not violent, random attacks by strangers, Many involve unwelcome touching and coercive sexual contact perpetrated by someone known to the victim, he said.

Almost half of assault victims—46 percent—got medical exams after they were assaulted, the report indicates.

In 11.8 percent of cases surveyed, professionals who took the initial report noted that victims had an intellectual disability. Another 12.5 percent had a diagnosis of mental illness and 3.3 percent had physical disabilities.

The study notes that while alcohol is a factor in many sexual assaults—separate studies show that more than half of college campus assaults involve alcohol, for example—police in the East Metro reported alcohol as a factor in only about 20 percent of cases, the report says.

“This is in line with other studies that demonstrate that victims/survivors who use alcohol are much less likely to report the offense to police,” the report says, “and to both assume blame themselves and be blamed by others for the assault.”

The report identifies inconsistencies in the way that police departments report race. Victims’ race was noted in 60.8 percent of cases; suspects’ race was noted in 63.5 percent of cases.

Choi said that the report confirms much of what his office already knew, but that it identifies many important areas for process improvement and reallocation of resources.

“There is so much that needs to change,” he said.


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