Reminder: Police Suck At Handling Campus Rape Allegations, Too

Illustration for article titled Reminder: Police Suck At Handling Campus Rape Allegations, Too

By now, it's an established fact that college administrations are utterly inept at handling sexual assault allegations. For all those well-intentioned humans out there who think the best solution is to leave such cases in the hands of local law enforcement: turns out, the police are pretty damn terrible at appropriately responding to sexual assault allegations, too.

Anecdotal evidence of this sad truth abounds, and it's only reaffirmed in a recent New York Times report about the ways in which the Tallahassee police consistently — and seemingly intentionally — fail Florida State University students who say they've been raped.

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According to the Times, there's a sinister pattern to the Tallahassee police department's handling of FSU student rape allegations: "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 was, notably, their excuse for wildly mismanaging the Jameis Winston allegations.) In no other type of alleged crime is the victim asked whether they'd like the police to go through with an investigation. In the words of Rebecca Campbell, a psychology professor at Michigan State, "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?'"

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Reports from city and university police departments show that "unless accusers say firmly that they want cases investigated and prosecuted, officers have called them uncooperative and called off investigations." Obviously, though, someone who was just sexually assaulted may not be capable of being adamant with law enforcement, especially if they seem skeptical of his/her testimony — and a good way to make someone feel doubted is to have an officer of the law say, "Are you SURE you want us to look into this? Like, totally certain?" In the words of one anonymous student whose case wasn't investigated after she was erroneously dubbed uncooperative: "I was raped and stressed and scared, something completely different from not cooperating."

Rape victims shouldn't have to tell the police to do their job. If someone reports a crime, police should investigate. Of course, that's much easier said than done because the entire system is pretty fucked — even if police were to stop putting the onus on sexual assault victims to decide for them whether they should do their jobs, that won't fix the other metastasized problems in the criminal justice system. That won't fix the insanely low reporting rates for sexual assault, that won't solve the infuriating rape kit backlog in our country, and that won't magically make law enforcement start believing rape victims.

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This is why colleges needs their own adjudication processes. It's wildly unlikely that rape victims will see the smallest measure of justice if they report to the police, and the criminal justice system is far more resistant to reform than individual college administrations are. At the very least, comprehensive sexual assault policies on college campuses will allow survivors to get the accommodations they need — including revised schedules, the ability to move dorms, mental health resources and no-contact orders for their assailants.

In short, telling victims of campus rape to just report to police is a totally ineffective solution.

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Image via Getty.

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DISCUSSION

hardcoreumlaut
hardcöre umlaut

This is what I have to say to people who automatically post "ban schools from handling rape cases, go directly to the police" whenever this subject comes up:

At pretty much every university, current policy gives four options: "you can report only to us, you can report only to the police, you can report to both or you can report to neither."

Rewriting university policies so that the university would automatically work with police on all cases of rape or sexual assault would, I believe, discourage students from reporting at all. How many times do we hear of assaults when the victim doesn't report it to police because he or she knows that nothing will come of it? University conduct boards use a much lower standard of evidence (you must prove, basically, that "it is more likely than not that this student committed this act," rather than "beyond a reasonable doubt") and because of this, students sometimes deal with their attackers through the school rather than the police. There is also the issue of time. Police investigations can be drawn out and, depending on where a student is in his or her university career, that student might have graduated and moved away before the case goes to court. University cases can usually move much quicker than this.

The fact is, colleges and universities are selective institutions (they are allowed to select their community members based on admissions criteria), and thus they are allowed to remove students from their communities if necessary. Imagine if university conduct boards could never suspend or expell a student for rape or sexual assault unless they were found guilty in a court of law. Students would almost NEVER be suspended or expelled from schools, because guilty verdicts are reached in such a small number of cases. Conduct board cases are not about sentencing students to jail; they are meant as a way to remove students from campus if their behavior poses a threat to others or breaks the student code of conduct. This is to protect other students. I am very glad that the student who raped my friend in college was expelled with a note on his transcript that it was for disciplinary reasons. Not only does it mean that he was no longer on campus to pose a threat to other campus women, but it means he is unlikely to be admitted to another college (since he was not "in good standing" when he left).

This is not to say that the higher education system has no problems with rape and sexual assault. Of course it does. We hear stories again and again about students who are pressured to keep quiet about their rapes or assaults so as not to make the school look bad. If students want to pursue an investigation through the local police, and only the local police, they should not be pressured not to by administrators not to do so. I hate administrators who would put rankings and appearances before the good of the student. My colleagues and I are here for the benefit of our students; we should be working to help and support them rather than make the institution look good for US News and World Report. This is something that needs to be dealt with. The problem is so large that President Obama has created a task force to address it. But tying the hands of universities so that they cannot remove students who are a danger to or have already harmed others will in no way help the rest of the student body. The Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights released a Dear Colleague Letter three years ago to address this issue, and it laid out clearer guidelines for university administrators to follow. They followed it up this year with the "Not Alone" document and website to support student victims and college administrators deal with the processes. There is definitely a problem on campus, but taking away a college or university's ability to discipline its students is not the way to solve it. We must demand better from our university administrators and hold college presidents and administrations accountable. Research your school's policy, call your alma mater and let them know what you think as an alumni, withhold your annual donation if you are unhappy.