Women in the World

In Washington, Sexual Assault Victims Find Justice Elusive

Washington D.C. police routinely fail to investigate sexual assault cases, Human Rights Watch has found. Here is one woman’s story.

02.22.13 9:45 AM ET

In late January, Human Rights Watch released a 196-page report “Capitol Offense: Police Mishandling of Sexual Assault Cases in the District of Columbia,” concluding that in many sexual assault cases, Washington police did not file incident reports, which are required to proceed with an investigation, or misclassified serious sexual assaults as lesser or other crimes. Human Rights Watch also found that the police presented cases to prosecutors for warrants that were so inadequately investigated that prosecutors had little choice but to refuse them and that procedural formalities were used to close cases with only minimal investigation. Below, Eleanor Gourley tells her story.

I always felt that if I was the victim of a crime that the police would be there for me.

The May 2011 night I was assaulted, the police were mostly helpful and kind. One officer came to the hospital with me and stayed by my bed for about an hour, talking to me because I was so nervous and alone.  My attacker had stabbed me with a box cutter and told me he would kill me if I did not do as he asked. He took my cell phone, so I couldn’t call anyone.  The officer let me use his phone.

I was shaken—not just because I’d been stabbed and was bleeding, but because I had just fought off a rapist.  I tried to give him my iPod, I told him I had $40 in cash, I told him we could go to an ATM and I would withdraw money for him.

"Please take my money," I said, already bleeding from the wound on my hand.  But he didn’t. He forced me into the alley with the box cutter at my throat. He started to push me against the wall. But when he pulled the weapon away from my throat for a moment, I grabbed his wrist and disarmed him.

One month later, I got the police report from the police station. What the police wrote was very different from what I told them that terrible night. The report made no mention of the fact that I told them the assailant was trying to rape me. Instead, they diminished my experience by classifying my crime as a “robbery with arms,” and not as the attempted sexual assault I know it was.

The police said all he was trying to do was steal from me. That was not, in any way, what I had reported to them. I had tried to give him my money, but he had insisted on dragging me to the alley. To me, it was clear that he wasn’t just trying to take my purse. The attacker ripped my dress. He forced me into an alley and cut me three times. He wouldn’t take my money.

Everything in my body that night told me that I was going to be raped. After I got the box cutter away, I screamed, ‘Rape!’ and a man came running into the alley. I remember when I was being loaded into the ambulance, the police asked him why he came into the alley and he said, ‘I heard a woman screaming “rape.” ’ The first thing I said to my sister was, ‘He was trying to rape me.’ I told the police officers at the scene of the crime that he had been trying to rape me. I told the EMS, nurses, and doctor that it was an attempted rape.

In the immediate aftermath of the assault, I didn’t really feel like a victim. After all, I got the weapon away from him. I saved myself. And then people came and they helped save me.

I only started to feel like a victim because of my interactions with the police in the weeks and months after the assault.

Over time, it became increasingly clear that the police didn’t believe me. The first question the police photographer who met me at the hospital asked was “Why didn’t you just give him your purse?” I was too taken aback to respond but after that first night, whenever I spoke to the police they made me feel ashamed. They again tried to make me question myself and what happened—and they made me feel like I was making something up, when all I was trying to do was tell them what happened so that it could be reported accurately and so that it wouldn’t happen again.

I learned from Human Rights Watch’s report that I am not alone, and that other victims of sexual assault in Washington, D.C. are not always getting the effective response they deserve from our Metropolitan Police Department.

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Yet the MPD continues to downplay these concerns, going so far as to mischaracterize the facts of my case. In response to Human Rights Watch’s report, Chief Cathy Lanier told The Washington Post that there was no evidence of sexual assault in my case and that “we have to have the elements of a crime.” Yet attempted sexual assaults rarely have witnesses. If they don’t believe me, bloodied and in a torn dress, with two witnesses who heard me cry rape, whom do they believe?

Why aren’t these cases taken seriously?  Maybe it's because until recently the police department gave its officers and detectives no specialized training in sexual assault or in how to interview traumatized victims, according to Human Rights Watch. Maybe it has to do with a departmental culture that downplays sexual assaults—an attitude that seems to start at the top. Whatever the reasons, the report shows that other survivors who tried to report rape felt as I did and do—that police simply did not take them seriously.

The kinds of problems highlighted by Human Rights Watch are not new; they've been exposed before, in a 2008 civil lawsuit against the Metropolitan Police Department. Police Chief Cathy Lanier claims that the issues have "long-since been addressed" through policy reforms, but the Human Rights Watch findings, and my own experience, suggest otherwise. The chief says she has made investigating sexual assault reports a top priority and has asked the Department of Justice to look into police practices. This is a positive step, but an investigation—and there's no guarantee the DOJ will agree to do one—would take at least a year, and the problems identified need to be tackled without delay.

My attacker was never caught. It upsets me to think that he may attack others.  When a rape occurred in the same alley eight months later, I worried that it might be the same perpetrator. I wrote to Chief Lanier in 2011 to say it is important that a failed rape be reported accurately so that members of my community know the truth about the crimes committed on their streets and so that police can better protect and serve all citizens. That's why I believe it's so important to bring the MPD under external oversight, to ensure that every single report of sexual assault is documented and thoroughly investigated, and that every victim is treated with respect and compassion.

Now I know many women in the nation’s capital are left feeling confused, disrespected, and even victimized from their interactions with police. We need a criminal justice system that doesn’t diminish crimes, fail to prosecute, and question the credibility of women who ask for help.

Above all, we should support those who have the courage to come forward, and never make survivors of sexual assault feel ashamed when reporting a crime.