Marissa was raped in Washington, D.C., two years ago. The detective sent to investigate told her that bringing charges against the perpetrator would ruin the rapist’s life. He told her that her “words said no, but what about the other signals she was sending?” He said she did not need a sexual assault exam in a hospital (and police never ran tests on her rape kit). And he told her that because she knew the man who raped her, her case did not constitute a public safety issue.
This Thursday in Washington, D.C., a public hearing will be held on Bill 20-417—the Sexual Assault Victims’ Rights Amendment Act of 2013 [pdf]. SAAVRA, as it’s acronymed, is designed to implement recommendations made in a Human Rights Watch report on the D.C. police department’s management of sexual assault cases. Turns out that there are many Marissas in D.C.
Human Rights Watch reported that victims of sexual assault in the district do not receive an adequate response from the Metropolitan Police Department (MPD). It criticized police for downgrading the severity of sex offenses, questioning victims’ credibility, actively discouraging victims from reporting offenses or undergoing forensic exams, and failing to document or investigate cases, among other shortcomings.
The SAAVRA bill would amend police policy in some significant ways, including:
–Allowing the local Police Complaints Board and Office of Police Complaints jurisdiction to deal with complaints about the handling of sexual assault cases of victims. At this time, the police department has been routinely ignoring disciplinary actions ordered by these external groups.
–Requiring the MPD to process rape kits within 90 days. That will ensure that the city will not develop a backlog, which has been a problem endemic to police jurisdictions throughout the country.
–Prohibiting hospitals from charging sexual assault victims for their rape kit exams. Yes, victims could be charged hundreds of dollars for this in D.C.!!
The bill is not nearly as strong as victim advocates would like, but at least it’s a much-needed start on changing the environment surrounding sexual crime prosecution in our nation’s capital. Shouldn’t D.C. be a model in this arena rather than lagging behind other cities who have upgraded their understanding and treatment of rape?
Marisa’s case was declined for prosecution twice. She was told by prosecutors that they do believe a crime occurred, but felt they couldn’t get past reasonable doubt with a jury. She was asked how she would feel if she had to testify in court only to see the assailant be acquitted, and she answered that she’d feel pretty good about telling her story and forcing the perpetrator to answer. But that still didn’t convince them to indict.
“I can’t tell my story of how I was victimized by the rapist to a criminal jury,” says Marissa (who speaks out in this Human Rights Watch video), “but I can tell my story of how I was victimized by MPD and treated by the legal system to the City Council, and I will.”
The public hearing on Bill 20-417 will take place at 11 a.m. EST on December 12 in Room 412 of the John A. Wilson Building, 1350 Pennsylvania Ave. NW.
If you can’t be there, you can still submit a written comment by Friday, December 27 at 5 p.m. EST, to Tawanna Shufard, Committee on the Judiciary and Public Safety, Room 109, 1350 Pennsylvania Ave., NW, Washington, D.C. 20004. You can also send your comment by email to email@example.com.
Michele Kort is senior editor of Ms. magazine and editor of the Ms. Blog. She is the author of four books, including Here Come the Brides: Reflections on Lesbian Love and Marriage and Soul Picnic: The Music and Passion of Laura Nyro.