‘Deeply Destroyed My Sense of Safety’: Sexual Assault Survivors Say Police Interactions Often A Second Trauma

This introduction piece is part of a larger project, After The Assault, which aims to change the conversation around sexual violence to better support survivors seeking healing and justice. USC Annenberg Center for Health Journalism’s Impact Fellow, Sammy Caiola, helps us understand survivor experiences in the immediate aftermath of sexual violence and during police investigations. 

Other stories in this series include:

A Guide For Reporting Sexual Assault In Sacramento County

Episode 1: Start By Believing

Episode 2: Your Brain On Rape

Episode 3: A Question Of Evidence

Episode 4: Case Closed

Episode 5: Living With Trauma

Episode 6: Guide To Being An Ally

Episode 7: A Community Problem

Four days after her sexual assault, Penny decided to report to the Sacramento Police Department.

She wanted to go to a police station, so she called the department’s non-emergency line. The dispatcher told Penny — we’re not using her full name due to safety concerns — that there may not be officers at the station to take her report, and that waiting for one “could take hours.”

She didn’t want police officers to come to her home. She didn’t want her daughter to overhear the report.  She says the whole conversation made her feel dismissed.

“It was the way that the dispatcher spoke to me, that was the hardest part,” Penny recalled during an interview in spring 2019, about a year after making the report. “I thought, ‘You know nothing about who I am or what my situation is. But if I'm telling you I'm trying to report this crime, can you make it easy for me to do so?’”

She says she had to muster a lot of will to make that call in the first place. She remembers lying on the floor in the days after the rape, too overwhelmed to get up.

But she says instead of taking her seriously, the officer who took her report told her that she should be more careful about the men she dates.

“It just so deeply destroyed my sense of safety that I had,” she said.

Many survivors who choose to report to law enforcement say their interactions with officers left them feeling blamed, dejected and angry.

Some have described the experiences as a “second rape.” And some survivors are so distrustful of the police that they don’t report at all.

Advocates and law enforcement experts say case outcomes often hinge on whether the officer believes the victim and treats them with respect during the process. They say there’s a culture shift underway to establish practices that better address survivor trauma.

“Officers and investigators play such a significant role in victims’ willingness to participate in the investigation, and that victims’ ability to cope with the emotional and psychological effects of the crime,” said Dave Thomas with the International Association of Chiefs of Police.

He says it’s “ especially important to approach these types of cases from a nonjudgmental perspective, so as not to suggest to the victim that he or she is in any way to blame for the crime.”

 Need Help After An Assault?

      • Call WEAVE, Sacramento’s rape crisis center, at their 24-hour support line: 916 -920-2952 or visit WEAVEinc.org.
      • Find a directory of other community organizations working on sexual violence here.
      • If you want to report an assault, call the non-emergency line for your local police station. Find a full guide to the legal reporting process here.
      • If you are injured, get medical care as soon as you can.
      • You can always have a loved one or a support person from a rape crisis center present during the reporting process.
      • You’re entitled to an evidentiary exam, to collect DNA evidence for rape kits, whether or not you choose to report. These exams can be  performed if a victim reports a sexual assault within five days of the crime. If you can avoid showering, brushing teeth and washing clothing until your exam, that can help preserve evidence.

CapRadio has spent two years talking to survivors, law enforcement representatives and advocates about what can be done to ensure that survivors feel supported and cared for — even if justice isn’t served. 

Arrest rates for this crime are low. The Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department made arrests in 13.6 percent of sexual assault cases involving an adult victim that occurred in 2019, according to a CapRadio data analysis. The Citrus Heights Police Department made arrests in 9.7 percent. 

The data that the Sacramento Police Department provided to CapRadio was less broad, only including some assault rape, sexual battery and spousal rape charges rather than all sexual assaults. In 2019, the department made arrests in 25.8% of these cases involving victims of all ages.

Local police departments did not provide comparison data to other crimes. But nationally, the FBI reported that 61.4% of murders and 52.3% of aggravated assaults ended in an arrest or were cleared by exceptional means in 2019. That’s compared to 32.9% of rapes.

Penny says more than three years after making her report, she’s still deeply shaken by the experience.

There are days where she’s so on edge she can’t focus at work. She goes to counseling and pursues alternative medicine practices to help her find a sense of calm.

Even though she didn’t think police would be able to arrest her perpetrator — the assault happened without witnesses or cameras — she felt it was important for the police to have a record of it.

“Oftentimes, people who do it, do it more than once,” Penny said. “And so if there is another time when it happens and there is more evidence, then maybe [police] will be able to do something about it.”

She had always thought of the world as a place where “bad things happen sometimes,” but believed law enforcement offered a “safe place” for people to go.

“And once the police had blown me off and told me it was my fault that I was raped, I felt like there was nowhere I could go to be safe,” Penny said. “I developed a fear of the police after that happened. Every time I saw a police car or a police officer I would have a panic attack.”

She says there aren’t words to describe how it feels when the police tell you, or even imply, that your rape was your fault.

“It was just simply devastating for me.”

A Second Rape

What Penny experienced isn’t an outlier.

In the early ’90s, psychologists introduced the term “second rape” to describe harm that sexual assault survivors experience after interactions with police, health care professionals or others who help victims of crime.

2008 Michigan State University study found that as a result of contact with the legal system, 87% of survivors felt bad about themselves, 71% felt depressed, 53% felt distrustful of others and 80% were less likely to seek other help.

Penny says she felt uneasy as soon as she arrived at the police station. She remembers sitting in a small room with beige walls and metal chairs. She described it as “cold” and “uninviting.”

On the police report, which Penny provided to CapRadio, the officer wrote that she and the alleged perpetrator “both had consensual oral and vaginal sex together” and that the man “became very rough during sex and she told him to stop twice but he did not stop.”

Penny says this wasn’t accurate based on what she told the officer about the rape. Her case was filed as an “information report” versus a crime report, which means it gets documented but law enforcement officers may not feel it currently meets the elements of a crime. 

“He didn't even think that a crime had occurred,” Penny said. “It's like it didn't matter what my experience was, because if there's a man who likes it rough, then that's his prerogative. 

“At some point, the police officer told me that I should have done a Google search and that I should better vet the men that I dated.”

Cassia Spohn, an Arizona State University criminology expert who’s studied law enforcement decision-making around sexual assault, looked over Penny’s case file. 

“The officer’s behavior during the interview was certainly questionable,” Spohn said. “She received misleading information about the availability of a forensic medical exam. My reading of this is that Sacramento police did not take this case seriously at all. There was no follow up.”

Experts and advocates say an officer’s tone and questions can perpetuate self-blame that a survivor may already be grappling with in the aftermath of an assault. There are lines of questioning that can be especially damaging if not handled delicately, such as “What were you wearing? “Were you drinking?” and other probes into the victims’ decisions and actions leading up to the attack.

Alexis Grove, an officer in the training division of the Sacramento Police Department, says those are “tough questions we have to ask that might make somebody feel guilty or that maybe they’re at fault,” and that officers do their best to explain why they’re asking for certain details. 

“There’s nothing we’re doing to try to make the victim feel as though they’re guilty of any crime, especially of sexual assault,” Grove said.

But Beth Hassett, chief executive officer of Sacramento rape crisis center WEAVE, says too often the officer taking the report doesn’t have enough training to know how to navigate these conversations appropriately. 

They can do it in a less traumatizing and judgmental way,” she said. “It really comes down to that officer and what their level of compassion is and bedside manner, frankly.”

The California Commission on Peace Officer Standards And Training requires police departments to give recruits in the basic academy four hours of education on sex crimes. Departments can choose to offer additional hours on top of that, but law enforcement representatives say it can be difficult to do so given time and resource constraints.

The Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department does not offer additional hours of training beyond what is required by the academy, according to the commission’s records. The Sacramento Police Department provides four additional hours. The Alameda County Sheriff’s Department provides seven additional hours. 

Partnering with WEAVE can help solve this problem, according to law enforcement and experts. WEAVE provides advocates, or trained counselors who can explain the steps of the reporting process to a survivor. Survivors have a legal right to an advocate during any part of the investigative process.

The Citrus Heights Police Department has had a sexual-assault specific advocate embedded at their station for the past three years, according to WEAVE. Elk Grove’s department has had one for roughly six years. Sacramento Police and the Sacramento Sheriff’s departments both put sexual assault advocates in place in early 2021 after receiving federal grants to add the services. 

Experts say when an advocate is not involved and the survivor is left to work with law enforcement alone, the likelihood of the officer causing further harm is higher.

“A lot of times they're very green rookies who are picking these victims up,” said Beth Hassett, executive director of WEAVE.”And that to me, that's the worst case scenario.”

Sexual Assault: Fast Facts

  • Only 20% of rapes are committed by a stranger, according to the Rape and Incest National Network. Nearly three quarters are committed by an acquaintance or a current or former partner. A smaller number are committed by a relative or someone the survivor can’t remember.
  • More than 20 percent of U.S. women and 2.6% of men are victims of attempted or completed rape in their lifetimes, according to the latest data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. One in two transgender people are sexually abused or assaulted at some point in their lifetimes, according to the federal Office for Victims of Crime.
  • In California, any sexual or sexualized behavior that makes a person feel uncomfortable, intimidated, threatened or frightened can be considered a form of sexual assault. That includes rape, which is penetration by any part of the perpetrator’s body or any object, and sexual battery, which is when someone is touched against their will for sexual gratification, as well as many other crimes.

Start By Believing

“Like all reported crimes, every sex assault investigation should be initiated with the belief that the allegation is true.”

Dave Thomas says this isn’t the norm in law enforcement. Implicit and explicit biases can and do impact an officer’s decision about how to handle rape cases, he said.

“Every other crime we start by believing.”

As an officer, when he would respond to burglaries or other hard crimes, he says he never approached victims thinking they were not telling the truth.

But he says too often with sexual assault, law enforcement officers “look at a victim — and because they’re wearing certain clothes, because they have tattoos, because they work in the sex industry — it’s probably a false report. Like, ‘This individual can’t be sexually assaulted.’ Without even doing any type of investigation,” he said.

The prevalence of false reporting for sexual assault is low, somewhere between 2% and 10%, according to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center. 

Some law enforcement agents insist officers need to remain impartial. 

“I think the bottom line is that it’s not our job to believe or not believe, our job is to gather the facts,” said Michelle Hendricks, a former sergeant with the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department who retired in May 2020. “That’s something I preach to my detectives … because sometimes truth is stranger than fiction. What might sound crazy to you, sounds like Tuesday to me.”

Alison Jones-Lockwood with End Violence Against Women International says she often hears hesitation about believing survivors from law enforcement. 

“It doesn't necessarily have to be the exact three words, ‘I believe you.’ We can show that we believe them by being supportive, by listening to them, by hearing them,” Jones-Lockwood said.

Hendricks says WEAVE advocates are responsible for giving support to survivors, which allows officers to stay focused on the case.

“The WEAVE advocates, or any advocates in the community, they are there for the emotional support,” she said. “If I became emotionally invested in everything that I did in this job, I probably wouldn’t have made it past 1995. So there is a line that needs to be established. But the line doesn’t need to cause conflict. The role is to obtain the facts and pursue the evidence.”

But survivors don’t always know they have access to a support person.

Susan Moen, executive director of the Jackson County Sexual Assault Response Team in Oregon, says officers should also be telling victims they have the right to an advocate from the local rape crisis center.

“Most survivors just don't even know what that concept is or what an advocate can do for them,” Moen said. “And if law enforcement isn't yet in the habit or trained to make a connection between a survivor and an advocate immediately, then you lose out on that possibility of informing your survivor about that process they're about to enter.”

Detective Nicole Monroe with the Elk Grove Police Department says there are solutions that can make the process smoother, like more training on how to work with survivors. 

“There are some people that are officers that will talk to people very directly,” she said. “And we need to learn, as a whole, to step back and let the victim take the power in that situation and be able to speak. Otherwise, we'll close them down.”

Chief Ronald Lawrence with the Citrus Heights Police Department says officers need additional resources to be able to handle sexual assault cases with care. Often, they’re coming from policing traffic accidents or fatal collisions, robberies or neighborhood disputes.

“If a police officer is out in the field, they're not just trained to go to sexual assault investigations,” Lawrence said. “And sometimes we have to very rapidly change gears. ... That is kind of a challenge for us. And that's where the advocates really come in to be very helpful.”

Many police stations now have a “soft interview room” for survivors of sexual assault and other violent crime. They can contain couches, coffee tables, muted lighting, plants or art. Experts say conducting initial interviews in these settings can help survivors feel calm, which can help them remember more details about the crime. 

Sacramento County has a Sexual Assault Response Team, made up of law enforcement representatives, prosecutors, health professionals and WEAVE advocates. They meet monthly to discuss cases and ensure survivors are getting the support services they need during the process.

Members of that team and other law enforcement officers CapRadio interviewed say they want to create a system that encourages people to report and prevents additional trauma.

The Sacramento Police Department’s Sexual Assault Investigations Manual states that officers should use “a professional attitude” throughout the interview to “help the officer obtain an accurate report of the crime without causing the victim to experience unnecessary anxiety.”

The manual recommends officers bring survivors to a comfortable setting and inform them of their right to have an advocate or family member present.

A Sacramento Sheriff’s Department representative wrote in an email that the department “works to make the victim feel as comfortable as possible, while understanding the interview process might be challenging but is a necessity for the overall investigation.”

But advocates and experts say protocols don’t always come through in practice. CapRadio talked to 10 survivors who reported, and each said they had negative interactions with law enforcement.

End Violence Against Women International has an action kit for law enforcement explaining why it’s crucial to make survivors feel believed, and encouraging departments to take a “Start By Believing” oath. The campaign has been enacted in 642 police departments, sheriff’s offices, health settings, universities and city governments since it rolled out in 2011.

Still, many survivors and community organizers say law enforcement isn’t equipped to handle these cases, and that more action is needed to ensure survivors are supported and respected when they come forward.

Building Trust

In the summer of 2020, amid racial justice demonstrations spurred by the police killing of George Floyd, community activists started to question whether law enforcement is equipped to handle sexual assault at all.

Assault survivor and former public defender sujatha baliga now helps facilitate healing for rape victims in the Bay Area. She says the criminal justice system isn’t designed for people who have experienced trauma.

“We've been disempowered when we're sexually harmed, and offering us opportunities for choice, which was the thing that we lost when we were sexually assaulted, is the most important thing,” she said. “And those choices just simply don't exist in a system that's already decided what needs to happen to us.”

This power dynamic is even more pronounced for survivors of color, who may already be hesitant to report due to a historic distrust of law enforcement and a fear that they’ll be penalized for reporting a crime. 

Penny, who identifies as biracial, said she had to work through that fear to be able to report.

“If you’ve seen on the news the police hurting African American people who’ve done nothing wrong, why would you go to the police and tell them that you’ve been raped?” she said.

“It’s a huge risk as an African American person to put yourself in a situation where you’re around the police.”

 For every one Black woman that reports a rape, 15 others don’t, according to the National Center on Violence Against Women in the Black Community. 

Want To Get Educated About Sexual Violence?

      • Valor US, formerly the California Coalition Against Sexual Assault, has lots of resources here, including a list of action steps
      • Find tips on what to say if someone discloses an assault to you here
      • Find a survivor-created guide for conversations about sexual violence here

Research indicates that people of color and people who identify as LGBTQ are the most likely to experience sexual assault.

But they’re also the least likely to go to law enforcement, said Sacramento community activist and minister Elaine Whitefeather.

“We have huge numbers, and they're not going to go through any mainstream organizations,” she said. 

Whitefeather, who identifies as queer, Japanese, Native American and African American, has been working for nearly four decades to try to counsel families grappling with sexual assault and domestic violence.

She says the reluctance to engage with police is due to ‘sanctuary harm’, which occurs when someone turns to a system for help and instead leaves with further trauma. For communities of color, it’s also tied to decades of distrust in government due to generational abuse.

She says there’s a need to build trust between law enforcement and marginalized communities, starting with more diverse hiring.

“As a survivor, part of the challenge already for me is not having folks who look like me,” she said.

Survivor baliga has been at the forefront of the movement for restorative justice, which works outside law enforcement to give survivors more choices about how to process sexual violence. This can include healing circles, supervised conversations with the perpetrator or individual counseling.

“Crime survivors have been told our whole lives that the only thing that justice looks like is the person who's caused us harm behind bars,” baliga said. “This is the only thing that is understood to be what can move us towards healing.”

As for Penny, she says she doesn’t regret reporting her assault — she’s still hopeful her statement could make a difference if her perpetrator ever assaults someone else. But she’s had to let go of the idea of justice.

“Healing with legal action is fraught because you're dependent on other people and other people can fail you,” she said. “And when you decide to do healing on your own, it's from almost a more empowered position, because you're fully in control of what that process looks like.”

She’s still in that process. It includes regular therapy, alternative medicine practices and help from friends. 

She still has panic attacks and days where it’s difficult to focus, because she’s stuck on thoughts about the assault — not just the crime, but the police interactions that followed.

“It's like a total destruction of your being,” she said. “And then having to build yourself back up brick-by-brick so that you can function.”

[This article was originally published by CapRadio].

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