Vail Valley Voices: Few sex crimes reported
Vail, CO COlorado
As a detective who investigates sexual-assault cases, I would like you to know that I understand being a victim of any crime, but especially a sexual assault, can be embarrassing.
There still seems to be some stigma about being a victim. However, crimes happen and some circumstances are just unavoidable or unpreventible.
The statistics are unfortunate. In Colorado, one in four women have experienced an attempted or completed sexual assault. (Colorado Coalition Against Sexual Assault).
I know that most sexual assaults (more than 80 percent) are never reported to law enforcement for a variety of reasons.
For example, victims often believe or are told the assault is their fault, but this is not true. As a society, more and more victims are learning that the blame doesn’t fall on them but on the offender. With the recent publicity of high-profile sexual assaults, more victims want to tell someone and hold offenders accountable for their actions.
Detectives hope this will lead to the actual reporting of a sexual assault. I know this is probably the most terrifying thing a victim can do. But with the right people involved and proper training of those involved, this doesn’t have to be a horrible process.
What law enforcement needs from the investigation varies. In most cases, there is an “outcry” witness, a friend or someone the victim saw or spoke to soon after the assault. Outcry witnesses can be valuable in the investigation process.
If the assault is recent, a forensic exam with specially trained nurse examiners is preferred. This is one component of the investigation in which law enforcement may gather physical evidence. There are, of course, other aspects of the investigation where physical evidence may be collected – location of assault, clothing, etc.
Then there is the interview. Next to the sexual assault exam, this is one of the most uncomfortable experiences a victim will go through in the reporting process. In order for law enforcement to put a good case together, the victim must tell in detail what happened to them. This may lead to a feeling of revictimization, but it is critical in law enforcement investigations.
In most of the sexual assault cases the Sheriff’s Office investigates, there is no physical evidence, and the majority of victims are younger than 18. Many of the assaults happened months or even years ago. So we rely on outcry witnesses and good interviews, among other things, to document cases.
With children, law enforcement must pay particular attention to conducting a good interview of the victim. We have forensic interviewers who have special training to ask questions that are not leading or suggestive. This is imperative to finding factual information about what happened.
As with any crime, prevention is the best defense. We must be more proactive and educate the public about the myths about sexual assault. Parents need to be vigilant, and victims need to feel confident about holding perpetrators accountable. Most importantly, our children need a voice for their rights.
Doug Winters is a detective with the Eagle County Sheriff’s Office. April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month. For assistance or more information, call the Bright Future Foundation’s hotline at 970-949-7086 or the Victims Services Unit at the Sheriff’s Office at 970-328-8544 or go to http://www.rainn.org (Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network).