To combat low reporting, officials look to train officers better

To encourage sexual assault victims to report, officers will receive advanced training.

Sexual assault survivors speak during a Panel of Hope at the Ramsey County Start By Believing event at Hamline University in St. Paul on April 13.

Maddy Fox

Sexual assault survivors speak during a Panel of Hope at the Ramsey County Start By Believing event at Hamline University in St. Paul on April 13.

by Taya Banjac

Of the less than 20 percent of sexual assaults reported to police, only about 3 percent lead to an arrest. Even fewer lead to felony convictions with time served.
To address how initial police interactions with victims could be shaping the outcome of sexual assault cases, Ramsey County officials and the St. Paul City Council have adopted the “Start by Believing” initiative, which aims to curb negativity on the part of law enforcement.
“We want to create a culture that allows for victims to feel free to tell us what happened,” said Ramsey County Attorney John Choi at a meeting last week at Hamline University led by local project partners. “The time is right for this community in Ramsey County to … take that next step.”
The initiative calls for advanced trauma and interviewing training for anyone who has direct contact with victim-survivors, such as law enforcement and advocates, said Maplewood Police Chief Paul Schnell. The University of Minnesota Police Department is also involved with the project, he said.
Schnell said many departments’ facts-only approach makes victim-survivors feel like officers don’t believe them.
 “There is a whole lot of pressures on victims, but we don’t want us to be one of the pressures that causes them to disengage [during an investigation],” Schnell said.
Schnell said if police officers are trained to handle sensitive situations, victim-survivors could be more likely to share their stories. He said some of that training is already underway and has been well-received.
To fight low prosecution rates and fill gaps in investigation processes, the Ramsey County Attorney’s Office will start a 22-month-long review of uncharged sexual assault cases, Choi said.
He said two-thirds of investigated cases never make it to the prosecutor’s office.
Officials will review records, interview investigators and prosecutors and talk to victims to find why certain cases were never presented, investigated or reported.
“We’re trying to create a database so we can better understand what is happening and isn’t happening and then determine what we can change,” Choi said. “We want to do right by the victims.
The office is also consulting with universities to understand campus assaults and coordinate their efforts.
Even fewer college rape victims report their assaults to police. Coming forward for students can be complex, since perpetrators are almost always someone they know.
According to the University of Minnesota’s Aurora Center, less than 12 percent of college rape victims report to police, and most perpetrators report committing multiple assaults.
Katie Eichele, director of the Aurora Center, said more victims are starting to report to the UMPD. But fears of retaliation, victim-blaming and the possibility of testifying sometimes stops those who don’t use the University of Minnesota’s complaint system from coming forward, she said.
“It isn’t that they can’t [file a report]. It’s that they know that the standards are so much higher,” Eichele said. “Then, to drag yourself through that difficult process. … It’s more traumatizing than it is empowering.”
Karla Bauer, a panelist at last week’s meeting, said she was raped as a student while at the University of North Dakota after being drugged at a party. Bauer reported her assault to the campus police, but when she talked to officers, she said she felt discouraged.
“The response wasn’t extremely supportive. By the end of it, I said to him, ‘File that report away, and if some other girl comes forward, sometime maybe that will be helpful to you. It’s fine, just forget it,’” she said at the meeting.
She said with the support of her family and Jerry Bulisco, then UND’s dean of student affairs, she decided go through the university’s system.
After the trial was over, the school only found her attacker guilty of giving alcohol to a minor.
“I was told this is different than a court room,” Bauer said.
Bauer said she left UND and had her student loans refunded for that semester with Bulisco’s help.
“He was this amazing person who was so wonderful and supportive of me, but the university as a whole, nothing,” she said.
Cordelia Anderson, a sexual assault training consultant who spoke at the event, said the initiative comes at a critical movement for the movement.
“What we’ve never done before … is get people fired up who aren’t just the professionals and the advocates who do this work,” Anderson said.
There are still obstacles to tackle, she said, like overcoming unconscious biases.
“We have to get people to understand that, really, prevention is possible,” Anderson said. “We have to challenge those ideas that certain people are just entitled to take what they want when they want.”
But when the crime does occur, Maplewood Police Chief Paul Schnell said, law enforcement needs to create an atmosphere where trust replaces trauma.
“Catching these stories are hard … and even though sometimes we won’t do it perfectly, there is an opportunity to go back and connect,” he said