You Have Options: Improving Law Enforcement’s Response to Sexual Assault

n late 2009 and early 2010, multiple sexual assaults by strangers were reported to the Ashland, Oregon, Police Department. It was rare to receive information about stranger rapes, let alone several within such a short period of time. In investigating these assaults, investigators found that the victims had usually either withheld information that would identify the offender or provided false information about how the assault had occurred; in each of these cases, the investigators still believed that an assault had occurred, just not exactly in the manner that it had been reported.

Ashland, Oregon, has a population of just over 20,000 permanent residents and an additional 7,000 university students. Tourism and retirement services are key economic factors for the city. News of this string of what were initially categorized as stranger assaults shook the sense of safety of the community, and residents responded with vigils and rallies while the city council formed a committee to review law enforcement’s response to sexual assault. Taking a hard look at policies and procedures, the Ashland Police Department realized that the lack of accurate information provided by the victims during the investigations was an indication of victims’ mistrust of the legal system; in other words, traditional methods of investigating sexual assaults were actually contributing to an environment that kept victims from feeling safe enough to report the details of their victimization as they were able to remember them. Some victims were reporting incomplete or inaccurate information because they were concerned about not being believed or about not being able to remember details of the event.