Expanding Reporting Options

Nationally, law enforcement agencies and SARTs are working together to raise the number of sexual assault survivors who report to law enforcement and seek support from rape crisis centers. Giving victims a wider variety of ways to report assaults to the authorities is one strategy yielding results in different communities. A second practice proving successful is allowing victims significant input into how the investigation proceeds, including whether and when law enforcement interviews the suspect and various witnesses. 

One method used by many law enforcement agencies in the country is to collect anonymous reports from victims.  These reports, sometimes also referred to as blind, restricted or Jane Doe reports, allow a victim to give law enforcement information about an assault without attaching their name or personal data. Some agencies employing this method are Gainesville (Florida) Police Department, Chapel Hill (North Carolina) Police Department and Ashland (Oregon) Police Department, which incidentally all have sizeable numbers of college students in their jurisdictions. College students are in the highest risk age group for sexual assault and are also among the least likely to report it, according to a December 2014 report by the US Bureau of Justice Statistics.

In Gainesville, the police department collaborated with the local SART to create the website Report Rape Gainesville which allows a victim, or someone who knows about a rape but is not the victim, to report an assault online. The site provides information about sexual assault and the resources available to victims. A large “Make an Anonymous Report” button leads to an online form that asks users to “tell us what you are able” about the sexual assault, where it occurred, the suspect and anything else they want law enforcement to know. The person completing the form can also check a box to have a victim advocate contact them.

Chapel Hill Police Department offers an in-person option for filing an anonymous report that has been in effect for nearly two decades. It is a venue for sexual assault victims to alert law enforcement about an attack without having to participate in the criminal justice system. The survivor speaks to an investigator, providing details about the assault, who then files an information only report into their database. The agency’s civilian sexual assault specialist conducts one follow-up with the victim and then the person’s identifying information is deleted, but the report stays in the system. Lt. Mitch McKinney of Chapel Hill PD says, “If the victim changes their mind, we change the code in the database,” and the case is investigated like any other. For those reports that remain as information only, the specialist works with a crime analyst to look for patterns in where assaults occurred and the offenders’ modus operandi.

In Ashland, Oregon the police department formed the You Have Options Program (YHOP) which provides the choice of anonymous reporting and also offers victims a partial investigation or complete investigation. The program’s anonymous reporting option allows victims to report online or by phone or have a victim advocate report on their behalf.  Every report is given a case number. What differentiates the YHOP partial and complete investigations from traditional investigations is the amount of control it gives survivors over the entire process. The guiding principles behind YHOP are that, first, by decreasing the barriers to reporting sexual assault to law enforcement, the number of victims reporting will dramatically increase. Second, because the majority of sexual assaults are committed by a small number of perpetrators, all identified suspects are vigorously investigated for serial perpetration.  Any information gleaned from victims, whether they pursue criminal prosecution or not, is useful for holding offenders accountable.

Detective Carrie Hull, who spearheaded the You Have Options Program, is adamant about letting victims drive the investigation, which is very different from how most law enforcement agencies operate. In all cases where it is legally permissible (for instance, when there are no mandatory reporting requirements), no person is notified about the report without the victim’s consent.  This means that neither witnesses nor the perpetrator are interviewed without the victim’s permission. The victim also sets the pace for the investigation and has the right to request different steps of the investigation not be conducted. Investigators explain, without judgment, the advantages of completing specific steps in a certain timeframe, but ultimately, when legally permissible, the decision is left to the victim. 

Another unusual practice of YHOP, according to the program’s 20 Elements of a Victim-Centered and Offender-Focused You Have Options Law Enforcement Response, is that “criminal investigations that do not result in arrest or referral to an office of prosecution will be classified as ‘inactive’ unless found baseless or false, allowing for the investigation to be re-opened in the future at a victim’s request and/or if additional information is discovered.” Detective Hull admits that these tenets are a huge  change from how law enforcement agencies have traditionally approached sexual assault investigations, but she counters, “What’s more important, closing a case or solving a case?” Her approach is getting results—reports have increased 106% since the program officially launched in 2013, and she can only think of one victim in the past three years who said she wished she hadn’t reported.

The Ashland, Chapel Hill and Gainesville police departments featured in this article are just three police departments striving to improve the response to sexual assault victims.  They adopted systems that allow victims more latitude in how they report their assaults to law enforcement in an effort to build trust with victims and gain increased knowledge about crime in their communities.

For law enforcement agencies contemplating expanding reporting options in their jurisdictions there are some things to decide in advance. Most importantly, how and to what extent will victim confidentiality be maintained? How will information gathered be used? If anonymous reports reveal a common perpetrator, law enforcement may feel compelled to use the information in the interest of public safety. Be up front with victims about the extent to which their information may be used. Will anonymous reports be analyzed to look for commonalities or patterns in offender behavior? If so, who will do it, and how often?  How will that information be used? Also, some options may yield more results than others—victims may doubt the true anonymity of online reporting or worry their information could be hacked. Some survivors may prefer to file anonymous reports through community based rape crisis programs as they do in Ashland. Regardless of which alternative reporting routes a community decides on, going the process of consulting victims about their wishes and having multidisiciplinary conversations about improving local practices is worth the effort. 

Return to Insight Winter 2015