Ignoring rape complaints: When police fail to protect and serve

July 28, 2018

It was devastating enough for Amber Mansfield to experience the physical and soul-crushing trauma of a violent sexual assault. But after being choked, beaten and raped by a man she had been seeing, she was victimized again by a police department that didnt follow up on her case.

And the Minneapolis woman is not alone. Mansfield is one of hundreds of Minnesota women who report being raped to law enforcement, only to have their cases go nowhere. Its unconscionable negligence by some of the states largest law enforcement agencies and it has to be fixed.

Last weeks Star Tribune special report Denied Justice documented the failure of police to properly investigate sexual assaults in a recent two-year period. Mansfield and several other victims courageously agreed to be interviewed and photographed. Each had been attacked, and each felt that their cases were mishandled. Data from the departments themselves show that every year, more than 2,000 women in Minnesota report being sexually assaulted. Reporters reviewed more than 1,000 of their cases from 2015 and 2016.

In many cases, police failed to collect evidence, talk to witnesses or even assign detectives. And a good majority of the cases 75 percent were never forwarded to prosecutors to pursue criminal charges and justice for victims. Of the total number of reported rapes, fewer than 1 in 10 produced a conviction. In addition, reporters found that in dozens of cases police did not investigate suspects even though the suspects had been accused of, charged or convicted of prior sexual assaults.

While Minneapolis and St. Paul have the highest numbers of cases that went nowhere, the data show that the problem is not limited to the states largest cities. The problem is pervasive in law enforcement across Minnesota.

Thats why elected officials and candidates for office in Minnesota expressed shock and outrage last week. U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar and U.S. Reps. Tom Emmer and Tim Walz have sponsored legislation that would provide federal grants to train investigators to interview rape victims. Thats a positive step.

Some have called for task forces or commissions to further study the problem and make recommendations. Others say statewide changes in policy from the police licensing agency are in order and last week the chairman of the Peace Officer Standards and Training Board responded by calling a special meeting of his executive committee and pledging to develop a model to improve accountability.

Yet like thoughts and prayers after mass shootings, more policies and training programs may not be enough if there isnt a culture shift within the states police departments.

A previous Star Tribune news investigation, Shielded by the Badge, found that Minnesota rarely disciplines officers charged with or convicted of crimes, including domestic abuse. Its not a stretch to wonder if a system that protects abusive cops can be counted on to take womens sexual-assault complaints seriously. At a minimum, police departments must have strong policies on handling those complaints, and there should be consequences when theyre ignored.

Giving voice to women who say theyve been sexually harassed or assaulted is what the #MeToo movement is all about. Women have stood together and emphatically declared that times up for their attackers.

Times also up for police agencies that sit on their hands after a woman reports a rape. Sexual-assault allegations must be taken seriously and pursued vigorously by those who are sworn to protect and serve.

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