(Washington D.C. July 2, 2013) On Thursday, June 27th, a report commissioned by the Committee on the Judiciary and Public Safety Council of the District of Columbia titled “Analysis of Human Rights Watch Report Capitol Offence: Police Mishandling of Sexual Assault Cases in the District of Columbia” was released to the public after the law firm Crowell & Moring was retained to analyze said report from Human Rights Watch (HRW).  This followed a tremendous amount of controversy concerning HRW’s very public assault on the credibility of Washington D.C.’s Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) which happened to coincide with the previously un-contested, but then precarious re-authorization, of the Violence Against Women Act. As reported by AVFM previously, HRW accused the MPD of failure to document over 170 allegations of sexual assault and that there was a culture of victim blaming and misconduct in the department.  MPD Chief Cathy Lanier promptly responded with a subsequently publicized letter to HRW charging the report was based on critically flawed methodology and placed HRW’s credibility into question.
Crowell and Moring’s report unequivocally concluded that not only did the MPD not fail to document 170 sexual assault cases but that the “assumptions regarding the accuracy of the data it used, as well as the methodology supporting it’s conclusion that MPD failed to document and investigate over 170 allegations of sexual assault were flawed.” Indeed, the report concludes there were in fact only 5 cases which the Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner Program, or SANE, reported to the MPD between 2008 and September 2012 that were not accounted for. This was out of a total of 480 SANE reports and a total MPD case load of over 1500 sexual assault cases handled in that time period.
The flaws cited as to this discrepancy were that many of the cases were outside of the MPD’s jurisdiction and that not every SANE examination resulted in a police report. Also, HRW focused on matching the dates and frequency of SANE examinations without taking into account that they did not have access to the names of the alleged victims, discounting the possibility that there were more than one examination on different days for the same individual.
Most disturbing is the HRW report’s dogged emphasis on only a few cases in which police were accused of misconduct and the omission of facts that would have completely reversed the readers interpretation of events in those cases. Only eight cases out of the 1500 (or less than one half of one percent) handled between 2008 and 2011 by the MPD were mentioned over 100 times in the HRW report. This leaves “the reader with the impression that the number of victims whose complaints are included in the report [are] higher than [they] actually are” according to the Crowell and Moring report.
The omission of facts in several cases borders on criminal. For instance HRW stated that a 2009 case in which a victim was handcuffed, driven to an undisclosed location and sexually assaulted was categorized only as “kidnapping.” However the sexual assault did not occur in MPD’s jurisdiction but in neighboring Prince Georges County where it was indeed classified as a sexual assault. In another case cited by the HRW report an excerpt from a complaint letter to Chief Lanier was quoted as saying that during a call from an investigator a woman’s assault was referred to as an “incident” rather than a sexual assault thus making her very upset. What the HWR report left out was that the same complainant had glowing remarks for the officer who attended to her in the hospital during her “darkest hour.” “To this day I feel indebted to his kindness” stated another omission from her letter in the report.
The most scandalous, yet most comical, instance of factual omission in the HRW report was a case involving an alleged victim accusing the department of ‘victim blaming’ by using language such as “if someone did something to her that she did not like she ‘would tell them to stop’ and ‘if she didn’t want them to do it, why didn’t she stop them.’ What follows below is an excerpt from the Crowell and Moring report that details the exclusion of important facts that pertain to this case. (caution, WTF trigger warning):
What the HRW Report Doesn’t Say:
• HRW based this account on a complaint made to the Office of Police Complaints(OPC). This complaint was investigated by MPD.
• The victim reported to MPD that she went to a local business for a Brazilian Bikini wax on two separate occasions. A Brazilian Bikini wax involves the removal of almost all hair from the pubic region.
• The victim reported that she felt the two technician ns who applied the procedure touched her inappropriately on each separate occasion.
• The female SAU detectives interviewed the owner of the business and were given a demonstration of the procedure. During the procedure a technician, wearing gloves, applies wax to the area surrounding the genitals; pressure is applied to the area being treated, and the wax is removed. The pressure is applied to reduce the amount of pain associated with the removal of the wax from the area.
• MPD discussed the case with the U.S. Attorney’s office. The U.S. Attorney’s office determined that there was not sufficient criminal intent to prove that a crime had been committed.
• HRW cited this 2009 Complaint three times in the report. The statements of the female SAU detectives, when placed in the context of a Brazilian Bikini wax procedure that occurred on multiple occasions, provides a complete picture which makes the detective’s questions during the course of her investigation more reasonable under the circumstances.
The Crowell and Moring report also pointed out that the number of significant changes to the MPD’s handling of sexual assault cases since 2008 which were met with great favor from local sexual assault advocacy groups such as SANE. “The HRW Report nonetheless cites numerous examples of police misconduct that predate the 2008 reforms. Specifically, HRW cited pre-reform examples of police misconduct 63 times in the Report. Moreover, HRW frequently used these negative pre-reform examples to suggest that those practices exist today” said the report.
In spite of what is plausibly a deliberately misleading critique of the MPD’s handling of sexual assault cases, the Crowell & Moring report is generous to HRW in its analysis calling it a “catalyst for positive change” in its executive summary. It also states that the report is intended to be “forward looking” rather than holding HRW accountable for what is obviously a tragically flawed report the purpose of which was, almost definitely, to impact the outcome of the debate over VAWA raging in Congress at the time.