In the urgent conversation about how universities should be dealing with campus sexual assault, there are some who object to the idea of university disciplinary boards handling these cases to begin with, asking: Why not just go straight to the police? This question is misleading, as Emily Bazelon pointed out in July: “It’s not either/or,” she wrote. There “are supposed to be two parallel tracks,” with the police handling its responsibility to enforce the law and the university handling its responsibility to protect student safety. But, as a Sunday New York Times story demonstrates, there’s another reason that universities should not just turn these cases over to the police and walk away: The police are often eager to walk away, too.
Richard Pérez-Peña and Walt Bogdanich examined a series of sexual assault allegations reported by students at Florida State, the university that drew national attention after the school’s star quarterback Jameis Winston was accused of rape, and, as Bogdanich reported in April, both the school and the police failed to properly investigate. This new reporting shows exactly why it’s not enough to tell victims to report to the police instead of their schools and leave it at that: Florida State students are already calling the police, but the police aren’t investigating.
From the New York Times:
records from Refuge House, a Tallahassee nonprofit group, obtained as part of an examination of the Winston case, show that [between 2011 and 2013], its nurses were called to hospitals to examine and counsel 63 Florida State students seeking treatment for sexual assault. Of those, 55 reported the assault to the police.
Interviews with prosecutors and a review of local news reports turned up just two arrests in that span by the Tallahassee police for sexual assaults on Florida State students. University police records show no arrests for forcible sex offenses from 2007 through 2013.
Students appear to be reporting into a vacuum, both on the police and university level. Part of the problem, according to Pérez-Peña and Bogdanich, is that police handle sexual assault differently than all other crimes, forcing the victim to take the lead in the investigation rather than doing so themselves.
Now an examination of other cases from recent years shows a pattern to the handling of sexual assault complaints by Florida State students: After an accuser makes a police report and submits to a medical rape exam, the police ask if she wants them to investigate, and if she does not explicitly agree, they drop the case, often calling her uncooperative.
This is in contrast to most other crimes, where the police take a report and start an investigation without needing an explicit go-ahead from the alleged victim.* “If you have a property crime, they don’t say: ‘Would you like me to dust for fingerprints? Would you like me to canvass the area for witnesses?’,” Michigan University psychology professor Rebecca Campbell told the New York Times. Instead, she argues, police should “do what you would do with any other crime — you investigate, and you go try to catch the bad guy.” Considering that a lot of rape victims haven’t fully processed how they feel about the rape right after it happened, demanding that they take the lead in their own cases in a way that’s not expected of any other crime victims feels an awful lot like trying to make these cases, which are notoriously difficult to prosecute, just go away. In Philadelphia, police are experimenting with a different approach, taking evidence and then assuring the victim “that she can stop cooperating at any time, but they do not ask her if they should continue to investigate.” A victim can determine if she wants to testify, much later in the process.
It would be nice to say that since sexual assault is a criminal matter, there’s no reason for universities to get involved at all. But it’s clear from this Times report (and many others showing this is a national problem) that the criminal justice system is not yet up to the task. When everyone is trying to find a way to make sexual assault allegations someone else’s problem, then eventually the only people left dealing at all are the victims themselves.
Correction, Sept. 15, 2014: This post originally misstated that, in most crimes that are not sexual assault, the explicit go-ahead from the police is not needed in order to launch an investigation. It’s the go-ahead from the alleged victim that is not usually required.