WASHINGTON (AP) — Lawyers who looked into the handling of sexual assault complaints in the nation’s capital said Thursday they were confident that the D.C. police department had the tools to conduct thorough investigations. But they also issued a series of recommendations, including the appointment of an outside expert, and said more work was needed to carry out reforms.
The law firm of Crowell & Moring presented the D.C. Council with a 40-page report that recommended giving sex assault victims the right to have an advocate present during police interviews and medical exams, and ensuring better training for detectives, prosecutors and nurses. The police department should use an outside expert to consult on best practices and should improve the process of reporting complaints from citizens, the lawyers said during a round-table discussion.
The chairman of the Council’s public safety committee had asked the firm to investigate following a scathing report earlier this year from Human Rights Watch. That group said sex assault detectives were routinely rude to victims, dismissive of their complaints and failed to investigate a large number of reported sex crimes. Chief Cathy Lanier immediately denounced those findings and said the report was based on flawed methodology and would discourage victims from coming forward to police.
Keith Harrison and Jody Goodman, two Crowell & Moring attorneys involved in the investigation, credited the Human Rights Watch report with being a catalyst for reform and identifying key areas for improvement. The lawyers said they agreed that police work in some of the investigations had been shoddy, and that the Human Rights Watch report had helped speed up ongoing reforms — which in the last five years have included a mentoring program for new detectives and requiring that all interviews with victims be recorded.
But they also said the Human Rights Watch report relied on flawed methodology — in part, they said, because the organization wasn’t given access to victims’ names — reached unsubstantiated conclusions, used complaints from the same victims repeatedly and omitted facts that would have put its findings in a more balanced context.
Human Rights Watch, for instance, had concluded that police failed to investigate 170 reports of sexual assault, but Crowell & Moring called that allegation inaccurate. It said the police department has since been able to produce matching documentation for all but five of the 480 cases reviewed by Human Rights Watch. The organization has said it stands by its report and that its research was solidly done.
“The Human Rights Watch Report brought sexual assault investigations in D.C. under intense scrutiny. This was important because sexual assaults often go unreported, and are difficult to investigate and prosecute. The terrible experiences described by victims in the report should not be ignored,” the law firm report states. “On the other hand, the report was flawed, and did not accurately reflect the present situation in D.C.”
Tommy Wells, the committee chairman, at one point asked the lawyers if they believed D.C. police had the tools to capably handle sex assault allegations.
“We are very confident that the (Metropolitan Police Department) has the capacity and the ability to render the highest possible services to victims of sexual assault,” said Goodman, a former prosecutor. But, she added, “We are not able to say with absolute certainty that the highest possible services are being provided at the moment.”
Wells said in an interview after Thursday’s round-table discussion that he solicited the law firm’s help to “de-politicize” the debate over sex assault investigations.
“Oversight is not over. I will continue to provide oversight on this issue. This is only the first step,” Wells said.
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