D.C. Council looks to improve responses to sexual assault cases

The D.C. Council heard support for a bill Thursday that would look to strengthen how city police respond to sexual assault cases.

Sexual assault survivors and advocates testified in favor of a bill that would allow victims to have a trained advocate present at any medical examinations or police interviews.

The bill would also require law enforcement to process rape kits in a timely fashion, and would ensure that survivors would not be charged for the kits. Only one hospital in D.C. – the Washington Hospital Center – conducts sexual assault exams and offers rape kits, which are part of a four-hour-long medical and forensic examination.

The bill was based on suggestions made by victims’ advocates over the last year, said Council Chairman Phil Mendelson, who introduced the bill in July.

“I thought the suggestions made sense. The goal of criminal justice is not only to ensure the guilty are caught and prosecuted, but that victims are helped,” Mendelson said in an interview Monday.

The hearing comes about a year after a scathing report by the Human Rights Watch said Metropolitan Police Officers mishandled sexual assault cases and sometimes shamed victims.

A law firm said in June that the report was flawed, but did suggest changes such as hiring an outside expert to assist law enforcement in sexual assault cases.

Advocates who testified Friday proposed two other changes: ensuring regular review of sexual assault cases and eliminating an exception that law enforcement officials could decide when a victim advocate could be present.

Amy Gordon, who worked at the D.C. Rape Crisis Center from 2009 to 2011, said the legislation makes important progress but still needs improvements.

“[The legislation must] effectively balance the needs of victims with investigatory imperative of law enforcement,” Gordon said at the hearing. “The right for a survivor of crime to have an advocate should exist without any exception.”

Council member Tommy Wells, who chairs the Committee on the Judiciary and Public Safety, introduced the bill with Mendelson and oversaw Thursday’s hearing, said that the Council understands the importance of proper treatment for victims.

“There is no lack of attention or concern on behalf of the Council or the Chief [of Police],” Wells said. “What I want you to hear is that it’s clear to me is that there’s a public interest which means it’s a government interest in the continuing injury experienced by a victim or survivor of sexual assault.”

A November study by the National Research Council found that 80 percent of sexual assault cases go unreported.

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