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Sexual Assault In A Big City: Is There A Lack Of Priority?

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When it comes to safety, a city is often judged by the number of homicides it has in a year. Where does that leave other violent crimes like criminal sexual assault? Ask local sexual assault advocates, and they're liable to say sexual assault investigations aren't a priority for the city. Ask the Chicago Police Department, and they'll say the opposite.

Who's right?

The Numbers

In Chicago, criminal sexual assault has dropped about 50 percent the past 20 years.

Things look less impressive when you look at the last nine years. While the number of reported criminal sexual assaults in Chicago has come in at less than 1,600 from 2006 and 2014, a feat that didn't seem possible in the 1990s, progress has leveled out. Sharp drops in the 1990s have been exchanged for small drops with the occasional rise.

RELATED: Sexual Assaults By Neighborhood, A Tale Of Two Chicagos

From 2013 to 2014, there was a four percent rise in reported criminal sexual assaults, according to Chicago Police Department's data, and a five percent fall when you look at the Chicago Data Portal's numbers that correlate with the FBI's definitions of rape and sexual assault.

Numbers obtained from Chicago Police Department Annual Reports and year-end statistics.

Basically, things haven't changed a whole lot.

Ultimately, statistics are only part of the story. Numbers may not lie, but they rarely speak of the survivor's experience.

These numbers in mind, I want to emphasize that the number of reported sexual assaults in a city is not the number of sexual assaults that actually occur. Inconsistencies with the way the Chicago Police Department has defined and tracked sexual assaults in the past aside, there is a lot of research that indicates that many women do not report their sexual assaults. When attempting to include rapes not reported to police, the numbers change drastically. One study from the CDC estimates as many as one in five women in America have been raped.

The Stories Numbers Can't Tell

"I don't see evidence that law enforcement in Chicago is publicly identifying sexual assault as something it prioritizes."

This was said by one of the sexual assault advocates I talked to for this article, though was a sentiment that all of the advocates I interviewed shared. Anonymously interviewing multiple advocates whose combined, diverse experience spans decades, I was able to get a unique view of the challenges survivors face when engaging with the criminal justice system. Advocacy agencies potentially perform a number of services for survivors, from offering legal representation for rape survivors, to connecting survivors with mental health counselors and providing training to law enforcement officers.

Acknowledging that there is some training for officers and detectives, the advocates I talked to felt current training efforts are insufficient. Advocates described a system within the Chicago Police Department where new recruits and new detectives are minimally trained, and ongoing training is lacking.

The Chicago Police Department, when I asked them about the sexual assault training they provide, said, "Crimes of a sexual nature are particularly heinous and traumatic for victims. In addition to conducting thorough investigations of any reported sex-based crimes, we partner with advocacy groups, prosecutors and other government agencies to ensure a coordinated approach and open dialogue on preventing sexual assault, responding to those incidents that do occur, and seeking justice for victims. Additionally, the Chicago Police Department recently enhanced training to ensure detectives are equipped as strongly as possible to investigate criminal sexual assault complaints."

Legally, officers in Illinois aren't required to take sexual assault training. They're responsible for understanding the letter of the law – what constitutes sexual assault – but nothing requires an officer to, for example, be trained in the proper techniques to interview a rape survivor.

Advocates who've helped train officers described a landscape at the Chicago Police Department where the decision to train officers and detectives could be up to any number of people. Sometimes it's up to individual captains… or the Chief of Detectives… or individual districts commanders... Without one individual making this decision for the entire department, advocates find themselves constantly "renegotiating every time to try and get into a district."

The Importance Of Training

Inadequately trained detectives can potentially present multiple difficulties for survivors.

"Approaches to many investigations is focused on this victim proving that she was raped, instead of having offender focused investigation," an advocate explained. "... We even have clients who are essentially told, 'If you're caught lying about this, you could be charged with false reporting.' Those are comments to rape victims that are not going to promote the police department as feeling like a safe space to seek help."

"We understand that police have to have some measure of skepticism as part of their job," the advocate I was talking to later conceded. "But there are approaches and ways to talk to someone who is reporting sexual violence that aren't about treating them as if they are the ones that committed a crime."

For advocates and survivors alike, the act of interrogating sexual assault victims "like criminals" doesn't only seem traumatic for victims, but hurtful to the success of investigations. It's also a surprising practice, considering that estimates of false accusations range between two and eight percent. With the threat of not being believed hanging over a survivor's head, it's easy to understand why someone might abandon the police report they filed against their rapist, or why someone might not file a report in the first place.

Responding to my inquiries about sexual assault training within the department, a Chicago Police Department spokesperson said, "In regards to training, we have put approximately 450 of our detectives through a 40 hour in-service class. Among the topics covered related to [criminal sexual assaults] include Interviews and Interrogations, Line-Ups, Electronic Recording of Interviews (ERI), Buccal Swabs (for DNA), DNA/CODIS, Computer Evidence and Post Conviction Issues, just to name a few. This is separate from the 10 week training that all newly promoted detectives are required to take. The detectives promotion training has several classes directly focused on or related to [criminal sexual assault] investigations."

The advocates I talked to emphasized that, to their knowledge, the advocacy community was not involved with the "40 hour in-service class" detectives go through. To them, this reinforces the image of an inconsistent police department, where advocates are sometimes included in the training process, and other times snubbed.

Neglect And A Lack Of Representation For Survivors

Inconsistencies cause advocates and survivors alike to never quite know what they're going to get from detective to detective.

"There are some detectives who have been very collaborative with us, who seem to really understand what the role is of an advocate and how that can be an added value ..." said one advocate. "And we have other detectives who say they won't share any information with an advocate."

Possibly driving these experiences is the fact that -- for better or for worse -- the criminal justice system does not represent victims.

"The nature of the criminal justice system is that prosecutors work for the state, not for victims," an advocate who helps provide survivors with legal representation noted. "... Sometimes attorneys or police will say they're working for a victim, but legally, that's never true. Their boss is always the state."

The Chicago Police Department's devotion to survivors is more questionable than ever, say advocates, noting that there is no longer a dedicated sex crimes unit within the Chicago Police Department. The department used to have a sex crimes unit, but it disappeared in 2013's district shakeup.

"... If you no longer have a sex crimes unit and you have detectives that are doing nonspecific serious crime, then homicide and sexual assault get put together," explained one advocate. "So a detective could be working a homicide case one day, then a sexual assault case the next, and sexual assault cases present really specific challenges and investigative needs that are different from what a homicide requires."

When I asked about the sex crimes unit, a spokesperson didn't speak on its departure, but detailed how criminal sexual assaults are currently handled.

Each of the three detective areas in the city has a violet crime section, which handles all violent crimes. In each area, there are sergeants who specifically work as sex crime coordinators. "And yes there are detectives that are assigned to investigate sex crime cases," a the Chicago Police Department spokesperson wrote to me in an email. "Both the sergeants and detectives report to the Area VC Lieutenant. The Area sergeants who are the sex coordinators are responsible for identifying rape patterns or community alerts."

It's difficult to tell if Mayor Emanuel's office has exerted influence on the Chicago Police Department over sexual assault. One advocate half-jokingly challenged me to Google Mayor Emanuel and sexual assault. The idea was that nothing would come up, since he's said nothing of substance on the subject since he's been in office. I went through with her exercise, and she was half right, digging up any position on sexual assault from the mayor's office wasn't an easy task. Following the placement of the University of Chicago on the federal government's list of universities with ongoing sexual violence investigations, Mayor Emanuel did introduce a "Sexual Assault Victims Bill of Rights" for Chicago college students to the Chicago City Council. While positive for college campuses, the bill would have little effect on the city as a whole. And besides this bill, Mayor Emanuel's office has been awfully quiet regarding sexual assault. This alone shouldn't be damning, but it's odd that, in a time when rape is taking such a prominent political and social platform in our country, the mayor of the third largest American city has had little to say on the subject.

Which leaves us with the firsthand accounts of sexual assault advocates and comments from the Chicago Police Department to help us determine the state of sexual assault in Chicago. Sadly, the differences in their stories leave us with two different narratives.

So which is true?

Attempting To Clear Things Up

Using statistics doesn't exactly clear things up. On one hand, yearly arrest rates for Chicago rapes, according to the Chicago Data Portal, have continued to drop over the past 14 years. In 2001, the arrest rate was 25 percent. In 2014, it was 11 percent. 2014 might be a bad year to compare it to though, since the process of rape investigations can move extremely low, and many investigations from 2014 are probably still in progress. Taking a look at 2013 isn't that much more optimistic -- the arrest rate was 15.66 percent. Fewer rapes are being reported, yet a smaller percentage of rapists are being arrested than in previous years.


Is this indicative of a problem with sexual assault investigations, or a problem with the department as a whole? As WBEZ recently pointed out, a similar pattern has been seen when looking at homicides, where a smaller percentage of homicides are being solved. They attribute this to a lack of detectives, which would definitely affect the arrest rates of all violent crimes, including sexual assault.

While the department claims coordinated responses with advocates, advocates claim inconsistent responses from detectives. The department claims enhanced training, yet advocates experienced in training have their doubts. The department claims to prioritize sexual assault within the violent crime units, yet doesn't have a unit solely focused on sex crimes.

The truth? It's probably nestled between the two different accounts we've been given.

It's Not All Bad News

It should be noted that there are some obvious ways the local criminal justice system has improved in recent years.

The Cook County State's Attorney's Office has actively engaged in training for its states attorneys. Similarly, the federal government through the Department of Justice Office of Violence Against Women has begun taking more of an interest in the legal representation of survivors, recognizing that they need a voice within the system.

Encouraged by the Human Rights Watch's revelation that most rape kits are never tested by the state, the "Sexual Assault Evidence Submission Act" was passed in the Illinois state congress in 2011. While law enforcement could previously send rape kits to the state at their own discretion, it's now a requirement to do so within 10 days. The state is now also legally required to test every kit they receive within six months. Hopefully, this has affected arrest rates for the better. As the report states, Illinois' arrest rate for sexual assault was an abysmal 11 percent in 2008, far lower than the nation's average of 22 percent.

The Chicago Police Department has also worked to align their methods of collecting rape data with the rest of the country's. For years, because of Illinois' unique definition of sexual assault, the Chicago Police Department hasn't submitted rape statistics to the FBI's Uniform Crime Report, which is used to track a city's progress with crime over time. This changed in 2014, with Chicago's rape numbers recently appearing on the preliminary report for the first time in decades.

There are even occasions where advocacy agencies and the Chicago Police Department positively work together, despite their different views of Chicago's sexual assault landscape. In recent years, the Cook County's State's Attorney's Office has held a sexual assault advisory group, which has allowed state's attorneys and advocates to work together to find ways to improve the criminal justice system for survivors. The Chicago Police Department has recently started attending these meetings, helping to create more dialogue between the three groups. The Chief of Detectives has also met with advocates on a few occasions over the last couple years.

And though advocates decry inconsistencies with the way the Chicago Police Department handles sexual assaults, cases that involve minors garner extra attention and resources by being handled through the Special Investigation Unit.

But even with improvements, sexual assault survivors are still more often than not finding a system advocates say is not built to include them. What can survivors, law enforcement and the general public do to fix this?

How To Deal With The System We Have

Not surprisingly, one advocate advises survivors to always have an advocate.

"… Having an advocate can be helpful in a variety ways," she explained. "The crisis support, the emotional support, the support of loved ones as well ... these are all these things an advocate can do that is not really the role of law enforcement."

Non-advocates can help friends and family that have been assaulted. According to Rape Victim Advocates, the key is to let the survivor know you believe them. Though you may have a strong reaction to what they tell you, remember that the focus should be on their feelings. And try to allow the survivor to make his or her own decisions. While your feelings may make you want to take care of them, remember that the best role you can fill is the role of a listener.

An advocate explained that a survivor can also benefit from having their own legal counsel (which advocates can help provide): "I think it's always going to be the case that a victim will have his own or her own counsel … They can never be the boss of an investigation or the boss of a prosecution, that's just not how our justice system is set up."

Individuals can also help discourage harmful actions in everyday society. According to the Chicago Alliance Against Sexual Exploitation, actions that can help dispel harmful rape myths include: interrupting sexist, misogynistic, racist or homophobic jokes and refusing to buy products that "promote the notion that women should or do get sexual pleasure from being dominated."

Ultimately, much of the public at large, advocates argue, need to change the way they perceive sexual assault.

"We have this massive problem where everybody in the world gives lip service to the idea that rape is really horrible and an awful violation of a person, but unless a victim comes forward and describes a scenario that looks like rape PLUS a really extreme physical beating, most people respond by saying, 'Oh that's not what I meant,'" one advocate said, emphasizing the public and criminal justice system maintain an "outdated, unuseful notion of what rape is …"

Not only can the public's interpretation of the act of rape differ from reality, but the public's image of the rapist is often incorrect. More often than not, someone the survivor knows -- not a dark figure in an alleyway -- commits rape. Understanding that abusers are typically acquaintances is imperative.

Our wider community, this advocate pointed out to me, could benefit as a whole from the example of the American workplace. While problems still exist in the American workplace, especially for low-wage and undocumented workers, things have improved significantly since the 1970s: "In the American workplace, when someone gets subjected to sexually abusive treatment, it's more normal for them to think, 'Hey I have rights!'"

While some employers still fail to respond appropriately, it's much more likely that, in many workplaces in America, they do respond appropriately. Unlike the criminal justice system, where survivors are sometimes at the risk of being dismissed entirely, American workplaces investigate complaints and create consequences for the people that violate the expectations of safety.

To advocates, this is what should exist throughout our society: thorough investigations that don't paint sexual assault survivors as culprits, and widespread consequences for attackers.

Sadly, Chicago -- no to mention the rest of the nation --has a long way to go before this dream is realized.

Mason Johnson is a Web Content Producer for CBS Chicago. You can find him on Twitter.

Chicago Police Department spokesman Martin Maloney's full, unedited response to my inquiries can be seen here.

To learn more about advocacy, check out the following organizations...

Chicago Alliance Against Sexual Exploitation
Rape Victim Advocates
Illinois Coalition Against Sexual Assault
Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network
YWCA Chicago

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