Rape Survivors: D.C. Police 'Downplay' Their Attacks

A human rights group says police in Washington, D.C. are failing to investigate rapes. The group says about 200 rapes and sexual assaults over three years ending in 2011 were not documented or tracked. Police dispute the claims. The nation's capital is not the only city with such a problem.

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A new report coming out this week accuses police in Washington, D.C., of failing to properly investigate many rape cases. Human Rights Watch is calling for more oversight of the police force, and more help for people who experience sexual assault. The city's police chief is fighting back, saying the group's research is flawed. We should warn you that this report, which lasts a little more than three minutes, will be disturbing to some listeners. Here's NPR's Carrie Johnson.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: The forthcoming report, by Human Rights Watch, says between 2008 and 2011, police in Washington, D.C., failed to document or investigate about 200 cases of sexual assault and rape. Sara Darehshori spent nearly two years looking over law enforcement files and interviewing witnesses.

SARA DAREHSHORI: Over 40 percent of cases that we found victims who went to the hospital and reported a rape to the police in the District of Columbia, were effectively closed without investigation.

JOHNSON: Darehshori, a senior counsel at the human rights group, says she heard from rape survivors who said police downplayed their attacks, and questioned their credibility.

DAREHSHORI: Because sexual assault is already the most under-reported violent crime, because people fear that they'll be mistreated by the police - to hear that that fear had come true, for a number of people, was very concerning.

JOHNSON: One of those people is Eleanor, now 24 years old. NPR is not using her full name because it has a policy of not naming victims of assault. Two years ago, on Memorial Day weekend, Eleanor says she was walking home at 2:30 in the morning. A man approached her. He had a boxcutter, and he demanded her purse. Eleanor turned over the bag, but she says the man wasn't done. She says he led her into an alley, the boxcutter at her throat.

ELEANOR: And he tried to turn me, to face him. In doing so, he took the boxcutter away from my neck. And I grabbed his arm and managed to disarm him. And I screamed "rape" and "help me, I'm bleeding." And a man came running out into the alley; and this woman called down, and said she was calling 911.

JOHNSON: The police came and took her to the hospital. She was treated for stab wounds to both hands and her chest. But when Eleanor finally saw the police report, it made no mention of attempted rape or sexual assault.

ELEANOR: You know, shouldn't there be a record that I'm saying, like, he was trying to rape me? The man who came into the alley said he came into the alley because he heard a girl scream rape. That was not - none of that was in the report.

JOHNSON: One police officer asked her why she didn't just give up her purse, even though she had. Another told her she was brave for walking alone at night - something he said he wouldn't do. Eleanor says she let it go, at the time, but she wrote a letter to the D.C. police chief months later. Then she got a call from a police staffer that only made her more angry.

ELEANOR: He said, I can tell you're getting emotional on the phone. And I said you're - I was stabbed three times, and someone was trying to rape me; and you're calling it an "incident."

JOHNSON: A spokeswoman for D.C. Police Chief Cathy Lanier declined to talk on tape about the Human Rights Watch report. But she directed NPR to letters the chief had written about it. Chief Lanier says the group used flawed methods. She also argues the researchers don't have enough evidence to back up their claims.

She says the department has made lots of positive changes. But, Lanier says, she'll start evaluating officers on how well they respond to victims; and do more to follow up. Both sides have asked the U.S. Justice Department to investigate the police's sexual assault unit. The DOJ has uncovered similar problems in police forces in Arizona, New Orleans and Puerto Rico, over the past few years.

Carrie Johnson, NPR News, Washington.

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