City police have received 76 emergency calls for sexual assaults on GW’s campus in the last four years, but only 17 cases have been logged in public records.
The calls for sexual assaults were among thousands of calls to emergency responders across campus since 2009, according to data obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request. Officers wrote up reports for 17 of those calls – half of which remain open.
Law enforcement officials said while it’s difficult to know specifics, police may not have filed reports because the victim decided against filing a report or a dispatcher improperly labeled the call. But crime experts and victim advocates said they were concerned that the majority of calls for sexual assault – 78 percent – have no police report, according to the data recently obtained by The Hatchet.
Scott Berkowitz, founder and president of the D.C.-based Rape Abuse and Incest National Network, said the number of missing reports seemed “surprisingly high.”
“It’s not uncommon I think for lesser crimes, for police to show up and settle the scene, and not arrest anyone or file a real case,” Berkowitz said. “For a crime like rape, you’d expect that the percentage that leads to police reports to be higher.”
Executive Director of the Student Press Law Center Frank LoMonte added that some complaints could have been unfounded, though it seemed “highly unlikely for the majority of calls.”
“That really shouldn’t account for such a big discrepancy,” LoMonte said.
While crime experts questioned how a majority of calls related to sexual assault did not show up in public information records, a 25-year veteran of the D.C. police force maintained that multiple factors could complicate the reporting process.
Peter Newsham, the assistant chief at the Metropolitan Police Department, said it would be impossible to fully understand each call without listening to the recorded conversations with dispatchers.
Newsham said there are “a million different scenarios” that can come into play when a dispatcher receives a call for help.
“Just because you have a call for service doesn’t mean necessarily that you have a call for assault. It depends on who called, what the officer found when they got there,” Newsham said.
He added that officers are required to call in MPD’s sexual assault unit when they report to the scene so a detective can investigate and write a report.
But MPD came under fire last January for its handling of sexual assault cases. A Human Rights Watch report uncovered about 170 reports of sexual assaults that appeared to not have been documented or properly investigated.
The author of the report, Sara Darehshori, noticed that officers were more likely to toss aside a case if it involved alcohol, which made it more difficult to investigate.
An external investigation by the law firm Crowell and Moring ultimately found that MPD had not failed to investigate the cases, though the department changed its policy of classifying certain cases – such as those that involve alcohol – after the Human Rights Watch report.
But Jody Goodman, co-leader on the Human Rights Watch review, said even though MPD could not produce a paper trail on the investigations, police could have still reviewed the case.
“The short answer is that just because there wasn’t a report doesn’t mean there wasn’t an investigation,” she said, adding that tracking sexual assaults can be particularly challenging because reports do not name the victims.
Sexual assaults are also more complex for police to document because it’s one of the few incidents in which the victim can decide not to report it even after police arrive on the scene.
A November 2013 report by the National Research Council found that 80 percent of sexual assaults go unreported nationwide.
Sexual assaults will again land on the agenda of the D.C. Council in 2014, as legislators weigh options such as requiring victim advocates in police interviews.
Newsham said “pretty significant changes” have already been made, citing personnel adjustments and increased training for sexual assault units.