December 09, 2014

Senate Panel Examines Role of Law Enforcement in Campus Sexual Assault Cases

Washington, DC – With some estimates indicating that nearly one in five women experience some form of sexual assault in college but that the vast majority go unreported, the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime and Terrorism today held a hearing about the role of law enforcement in campus sexual assault cases.  Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) chaired the hearing, which examined whether victims of sexual assaults should be encouraged to report their experiences to the police; why victims feel uncomfortable or unsafe reporting crimes; and what steps can be taken to respect the needs of student victims who choose to report while also bringing their perpetrators to justice.

“As a former U.S. Attorney and Attorney General for my state, I am concerned that law enforcement is being marginalized when it comes to the crime of campus sexual assault,” Whitehouse said.  “Marginalizing the men and women who are trained professionals in the task of investigation is a move in the wrong direction.  If we don’t increase and improve the role of the criminal justice system in these cases, victims will pay the price.  Equally important to early law enforcement involvement in these crimes is the quality of the law enforcement response.”

Witnesses testifying at today’s hearing were:

  • Senator Claire McCaskill (D-MO), cosponsor of the Campus Accountability and Safety Act
  • Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), cosponsor of the Campus Accountability and Safety Act
  • Angela Fleischer, Assistant Director of Student Support and Intervention for Confidential Advising for Oregon State University
  • Chief Kathy Zoner, Cornell University Police
  • Peg Langhammer, Executive Director of Day One, a Rhode Island organization working to prevent sexual assaults and support victims

“What we can do is make sure that information now provided to survivors in the military is available to young women and men who are assaulted on college campuses,” said McCaskill, a former courtroom prosecutor of sex crimes. “So they know what their choices are at the moment of reporting. So they understand what the consequences are if they decline to go to the hospital, or if they decline to talk to law enforcement, that they are taking on a chance that justice will never truly be obtained in terms of holding their perpetrator accountable. So it’s in that framework that we’ve tried to work out a bill that will strengthen the support services for victims. A victim who is assaulted on a Friday night needs to know, on that Friday night, where she can call and where she can go for confidential support and good information, which we hope gives her the encouragement to make the choice to move forward in the criminal justice system.”

“I want to thank Senator Whitehouse for his leadership on this issue and holding today’s hearing. There is no doubt the problem of sexual assaults on college campuses is real, it is pervasive and Congress must do its part to reform a broken system," said Senator Gillibrand. "There is a critical role for law enforcement to play in combating campus sexual assaults. By creating an environment that encourages reporting of sexual assaults, police departments can help bring these cases out of the shadows and hold more offenders accountable. It is time to end the scourge of rape and sexual assault at America’s colleges, provide survivors with the resources they need to recover, and hold offenders accountable.”

“The barriers that keep survivors from coming forward are many but are often surmountable, if we are able to focus our efforts on offering choice and providing trauma informed care,” Fleischer said.  “And when we increase at least initial reporting, the resulting benefits to individual victims and to our community are profound.  By utilizing specially trained individuals in the response to reports of sexual assault, survivors are given access to accurate, complete information and options, and communities become safer as we learn to identify the offenders within, most of whom will continue to commit sexual offenses if left unidentified.”

Chief Zoner spoke about the challenges of coordinating investigations into alleged assault cases between both university and police personnel, saying, “Concurrent investigations raise tricky issues for law enforcement and campus adjudicators to navigate.”  She also discussed recommendations to address these issues.

“If we expect victims to report these crimes, we need a system that works for them, one in which they are believed, supported, and can be confident in a just outcome,” said Langhammer.  “We owe it to our students to provide the best possible response to all sexual assaults. Without that, we are sending a message not to bother reporting this crime.”

Whitehouse closed the hearing by asking Langhammer, who also has extensive experience working on domestic abuse issues, whether there are any lessons she has learned from dealing with domestic abuse case that could be applied to campus sexual assaults.  “With both issues… the lessons are that we need to really listen to victims.  We need to listen to what they’re saying.  And we need to train our personnel – law enforcement, prosecution, anyone who is interacting with a victim – in trauma-informed forensic interviewing so that they really learn to understand how that victim is impacted…  I think the more we learn to listen to what the victim experience is, the more as law enforcement, as university administrators, we will craft our approach to really be in tune with what the victim needs.”

Video of the hearing will be archived here.