Sexual Assault Survivors Want Less Police, More Trauma-Informed Professionals — Especially For Black Victims
This conversation is part of a long-term CapRadio reporting project on how sexual assault survivors seek justice and healing. This project is supported by the USC Annenberg Center for Health Journalism Impact Fund.
Her other stories in this project include :
Andrew Nixon / CapRadio
Editor’s note: This story includes discussions of sexual assault, which could be upsetting or triggering to readers.
Two days before her 22nd birthday last fall, Dominique Green was at the Rocklin Police Department reporting a rape, still shaken from a violent incident with a former coworker the night before.
“I just couldn’t even make words,” she recalled. “And I was like ‘I think I need to go to the police station.’ ... I just felt very numb. It was hard for me to comprehend that that had even just happened. And I was definitely in a headspace of ‘Am I overreacting?’”
“It was just a very scripted, very just, like, non-concerned, just-get-the-paperwork done type interview,” she said. “It was very graphic. I just had to go into such explicit detail, and there was no concern by them.”
Nothing came of the experience, she says. The officers asked her to text her abuser to try to get him to confess. She did it, but she says the officers didn’t get back in touch after that.
So when demonstrators took to the streets to protest police brutality this spring, she felt a need to be heard — both as a Black woman and as a survivor. But she says she’s had to explain that stance.
“It’s definitely frustrating,” Green said. “All the Facebook moms saying ‘What are you gonna do when you defund the police and you need someone there after you’ve been sexually assaulted?’ And it’s like, ‘Well, they aren’t there anyways.’”
As many residents and city leaders rethink the role of law enforcement in their communities, including how much of local government budgets go to police and sheriff departments, assault survivors are drawing attention to their own struggles with police.
They say when the reporting and investigation process doesn’t go well — from negative interactions with officers to detectives moving sluggishly on cases — it can spur frustration and disappointment that disrupts a survivor’s ability to heal from trauma. Now, they’re calling for an alternative.
In Sacramento, roughly 45% of the city’s general fund and Measure U tax dollars went to police in 2019-20 and 37% of the county's general fund dollars went to the sheriff’s office.
CQ, an assault survivor who works with Sacramento’s chapter of national rape prevention organization Take Back the Night, said the same conversation needs to happen around sexual violence. She asked that we not use her full name for safety reasons.
She says it starts with making it clear that “defund the police” doesn’t mean eliminating officers entirely.
“What they’re really calling for is defunding police so these funds can be distributed to organizations that can adequately respond,” CQ said. “Police cannot adequately respond to someone who’s having a mental health break, mental health professionals can. And the same thing applies with sexual assault.”
Law enforcement agencies say they try their best to teach both responding officers and investigators to handle sexual assault cases with care, and to gather the facts as efficiently as possible while keeping the needs of survivors at the forefront.
But many survivors say they need more than a law enforcement response — they want mental health resources, support from victim advocates and an option for making a report without going to a police station.
“And that’s exactly why we say this needs to be defunded and taken over by somebody else,” Green said of sexual assault cases. “Someone who’s trained in this type of situation ... knowing how to be there for somebody and handle it appropriately, without making it seem like just another case. Cause it’s not.
“This will affect me for my entire life.”
For every 1,000 sexual assaults reported in the United States, fewer than five rapists will be incarcerated, according to the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network’s analysis of federal criminal justice data.
Twenty of every 1,000 robberies end in incarceration, and about 33 of every thousand people charged with assault and battery end up behind bars, the data shows.
Advocates and experts say there are many reasons for this, such as officers not believing sexual assault victims, a lack of evidence or eyewitness accounts and the high threshold for prosecuting these cases.
Cassandra Mensah is a New York-based attorney who represents women who’ve been sexually or physically abused. She published a piece on sexual assault and defunding police earlier this summer.
“We’ve all been bamboozled a little bit,” she said. “We all inherited this idea that real life is like Law & Order SVU, where everyone is gonna get their day in court and everyone’s gonna be heard and there’s these amazing police who are always being really responsive and not blaming the victim. But that’s just not the reality.”
She says a potential way forward would involve taking the emphasis off criminalization, and keeping responses to sexual assault focused on healing.
Some activists say more funding should go toward transformative justice, a non-criminal model that focuses on educating the abuser and helping the victim find closure.
Maggy Krell, who spent 15 years prosecuting sexual violence cases with the California Department of Justice, says she supports reforms that help victims, but there still has to be a system to hold perpetrators accountable. She now serves as chief legal counsel for Planned Parenthood Affiliates of California, but she spoke to us for this story in a personal capacity.
“The role of the prosecutor is to protect the public as a whole,” she said. “Without that prosecutor, it would be everyone fending for themselves.”
Adrian Passadore, a lieutenant at the Rocklin Police Department, says officers try their best to treat survivors with empathy and connect them to resources.
But he says at the end of the day, their job is to collect evidence, and there isn’t always enough of it to put someone in jail.
“Some survivors probably feel like they’re not being believed because there’s not action on the other end, and that’s just not true,” he said. “Sometimes they probably feel we don’t do a good job. They might not have or know all the facts of the things that were done. I get the frustration. There’s frustration on our side, too. … We want those people in custody. We do.”
Still survivors who felt ignored or mistreated by law officers — who went weeks waiting for updates on their cases and who ultimately walked away without a conviction or connections to mental health help — say those experiences put a wrench in their healing processes.
When Annie Walker reported her sexual assault to the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Office in January 2019, she says sergeants drilled her for information and became irritated when she couldn’t recall all the details.
“I felt like I was extremely cross-examined on the phone,” she said. “I couldn’t explain why I couldn’t remember things that had happened, or why they were coming back to me the way that they did.”
Fragmented memory is common for sexual assault survivors.
Walker said the treatment from investigators, and the long periods without updates, exacerbated her anxiety.
“I was just shut down or ignored or made to feel like ‘You’re not important.’”
Councilmember-elect Katie Valenzuela, who is organizing a movement to shift money away from police and toward community services, said sexual assault survivor experiences are an “example of an issue of when a crime is committed, when law enforcement isn’t the most appropriate response.
“There has been a long discussion about trying to highlight this issue,” she said. “There are folks who are interested in this … violence prevention is a huge part of the people’s budget discussion.”
The Sacramento County Sheriff’s Office said in a statement that detectives “understand the severity and sensitivity of sexual assault investigations,” and the effects trauma can have on memory. They would ideally like to add detectives to their sexual assault unit, they wrote, but “there are many competing interests and a budget to work within” and detectives currently in the job “work to make best with the resources allocated to them.”
“This isn’t something law enforcement can or should do on their own,” she said.
‘They Didn’t Take Me Seriously’
Survivors involved in the defund the police movement are trying to make one thing clear: Racial discrimination and gender-based violence are not separate issues.
“Women of color are experiencing violence at the hands of police, and also not being believed by police when they experience sexual violence within their own communities,” Mensah said.
Scholars have written extensively about America’s history of objectifying African-American women, and how it contributes to higher rates of sexual assault among women of color. About one-in-five Black women are survivors of rape, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. That number rises to one-in-three for women who identify as multiracial, according to the National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey.
The Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network says one in six of all U.S. women have been victims of rape or attempted rape. And the Bureau of Justice Statistics found that for every one Black woman who reports a rape, another 15 do not.
Advocates say a legacy of systemic racism and decades of police brutality have made Black victims hesitant to call law enforcement for help.
“If you’ve seen on the news the police hurting African-American people who have done nothing wrong, why would you go to the police and tell them that you’ve been raped?” said Penny, a Sacramento-area sexual assault survivor whose full name we are omitting for safety reasons.
“It might be that they dismiss you or ignore you,” she said. “It might be that they accuse you of having done something wrong. And it might be that maybe something even worse happens to you when you go to the police.”
When Penny decided to report her assault to the Sacramento Police Department in April 2018, she wasn’t worried about being arrested. She was in her home, she said, and she wasn’t doing anything that could be construed as criminal.
Still her expectations were low. She suspected officers wouldn’t believe her, in part because of the color of her skin.
She told them she was pushed down and penetrated, and that her rapist was too heavy to fend off.
“They didn’t take me seriously,” she said of the officers who took the report. She says they never followed up with her, and she still doesn’t know the status of her case.
The officers also documented her race incorrectly. She has a Black father and a white mother. The report lists her race as “caucasian/white/Hispanic/East Indian/Guamanian.”
“It just struck me as so odd that he would just manufacture information about me. He didn’t guess what my name was, he didn’t guess what my birthday was,” Penny said.
The Sacramento Police Department wrote in a statement that officers are supposed to verify race with the victim and through records checks, and that they “handle these cases with compassion and understanding while making sure each workable case is fully investigated.”
Mensah said inaccurate documentation makes it difficult to track sexual assault reports by race.
“When we track patterns, we’re able to find gaps and identify specific needs of certain populations,” she said. “That allows us to point to, scientifically, racial discrepancies in those who experience harm.”
“Black women aren’t seen as perfect victims,” she said. “They’re often seen as too aggressive, too loud, too angry.”
This can be especially challenging for women of color who are involved in sex work, or who had to physically defend themselves against a perpetrator, she says.
There have also been hundreds of instances of police officers perpetrating sexual assault, which can give survivors pause as they consider reporting.
Krell, the former deputy attorney general, says the fact that Black victims often stay silent and don’t get help processing their trauma contributes to high incarceration rates among women of color. The majority of incarcerated women have been victims of sexual violence at some point in their lifetimes, according to the Human Rights Project for Girls.
“You start at under-reporting and you just have this injustice continuum,” Krell said.
Some advocates for victims of sexual violence say solutions for survivors of color have to start with re-establishing trust between police and communities, so Black victims aren’t afraid to ask for help.
That might mean investing more in community members and trained professionals who can act as liaisons, said Adama Iwu, the San Francisco-based organizer of the Me Too movement against sexual assault and harassment.
“The emphasis really has to be on mental health and safety,” she said. “We want survivors to report, and we want whoever responds to them to treat them with respect.”
Activists say that process starts with rethinking where local governments put their dollars, and allowing groups on the ground to re-examine responses to sexual violence.
Penny said she fought past her aversion to police, doubts about the way they’d treat her and the debilitating fear and anxiety she felt in the days after her assault in order to report. It was important to her that the crime got put down on paper, she said.
But she says any notion she had of police as protectors is gone.
Finding An Alternative
At the Elk Grove Police Department, sexual assault survivors making reports are typically taken to a “soft interview room,” where they sit on a beige couch next to a towering plant. The coffee table is set with a box of Kleenex.
Part of her job is to help officers use “a more delicate conversational manner” instead of probing for specific, hard-to-recount information or asking for graphic details.
“Those are not productive questions to ask someone who has just experienced a trauma,” she said. “[The officer] will ask ‘What are the things that you remember?’ … Having that person speak to what their experience is, that’s very powerful for them. It just makes the victim feel like they’re heard.”
Survivors and activists say law enforcement budget dollars could be used to hire more victim advocates or mental health professionals, in hopes of making the investigative process go more smoothly.
Marianne Vlahos with Bay Area Women Against Rape says advocates can prevent officers from intentionally or unintentionally making victims feel ostracized. But at the end of the day, it’s “not a scenario that can be very trauma-informed.”
“You have a patrol officer who maybe does two or three of these reports a year, in a space where they're having to come down from a high-adrenaline different scenario and then sit down and go very slowly and carefully and gently,” she said. “It’s not great for either person.”
She said her organization is working on a plan where their trained staff members would take the initial report from survivors and then pass that onto police.
“That would be kind of a nice way to move into the future,” she said.
This is what survivors and advocates are asking for: a first response from someone specially trained to work with victims of sexual violence.
CQ with Take Back the Night says it could look like calling 9-1-1 and getting directly routed to a trained professional, or calling a different number entirely.
“Having a different resource that’s responsible for gathering rape kits and testing them, and then maybe turning that over to law enforcement once it gets to the point where that’s completed,” she said. “But I don’t necessarily think police are the appropriate person to be the first to respond on the scene.”
Survivor Dominique Green has a similar idea. She says when she reported, she hoped police would connect her directly with mental help. She says even months later, the assault has left her feeling anxious and distracted.
Some people want to see extra money funneled into rape kit processing. There are nearly 14,000 untested kits in California, according to an April audit from the Office of the Attorney General. At the time of the report, 19 counties hadn’t reported their numbers, according to a statement from lawmakers about the audit.
Ashley Cleland, associate director of the Women and Gender Office at East Carolina University, says it “sends a really horrible message to survivors” when kits go untested.
“It puts you through more trauma to then not get a result,” she said.
“We seem to be having our priorities a little mixed up, where we are funding a lot of the folks that are on the ground that are responding immediately to a sexual assault complaint or report, but then not having the funding or human resources or capital to actually follow through,” she said.
CQ said the first step to any of this is having survivors show up at city council and board of supervisors meetings to advocate for freeing up money that usually goes to law enforcement.
“Where else can we put this money and these resources and how can we create these things? Because what we’ve been doing, we know has not been working,” CQ said.
Sacramento activists are working on a “people’s budget” to create funding for social services, possibly including more money for programs that prevent and respond to sexual violence. They plan to present it this fall.
CapRadio health care journalist Sammy Caiola reported these stories with support from the Impact Fund, a program of the USC Annenberg Center for Health Journalism. Emily Zentner and Nick Miller contributed reporting. jesikah maria ross led community engagement efforts.
Special thanks to the survivors who shared their experiences and insight for this story.
As CapRadio’s health care reporter, Sammy plans to continue reporting on sexual violence. To get connected or send her a story idea, email Samantha.Caiola@capradio.org
[This article was originally published by CapRadio.]