A new report by Human Rights Watch accuses the Metropolitan Police Department of failing to investigate 170 cases of sexual assault in the District between 2008 and 2011. The report, which the MPD has vigorously challenged, also casts a harsh light on police procedures after an attack is reported. Kojo examines the report’s controversial findings.


  • Sara Darehshori Senior Counsel, US Program, Human Rights Watch
  • Cathy Lanier Chief, Metropolitan Police Department (Washington, D.C.)


  • 13:06:42

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show" connecting your neighborhood with the world. Later in the broadcast the real legacy of Martin Luther King. We'll talk with Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Taylor Branch about the ways the media represent or misrepresent a civil rights icon and learn more about his experiences in local Washington, Dr. King's that is.

  • 13:07:16

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIBut first, sexual assault in D.C. A new report released today pits a global human rights group against the Metropolitan Police Department. Human Rights Watch alleges that the MPD failed to investigate 170 cases of rape and assault between 2008 and 2011. That scores of cases were misidentified for classification purposes and that some police officers displayed a callous or dismissive attitude towards women who had been attacked.

  • 13:07:48

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIThe MPD has vigorously challenged the report questioning both its methodology and data. Joining us to discuss is the author of the report. She is Sara Darehshori. She is the senior counsel for the U.S. Program with Human Rights Watch. Sara Darehshori, thank you very much for joining us.

  • 13:08:08

    MS. SARA DAREHSHORIThank you for having me.

  • 13:08:09

    NNAMDIWe will also be hearing directly from Police Chief Cathy Lanier. But first, Sara, this report has been almost two years in the making. It's generated a lot of heated rhetoric between Human Rights Watch and the Metropolitan Police Department about data and methodology. But I'd like to start with the problem the report addresses, the idea that a victim or survivor of a horrible crime can often end up being put through a process that traumatizes that person a second time. Can you give us a sense of that problem on a national scale and how and why you ended up focusing on Washington D.C. and what the report says happened here, in ten seconds or less? No, no, go ahead.

  • 13:08:55

    DAREHSHORIThe problem of police handling of sexual assault cases is one that has come to attention recently in part because of a realization that a lot of police departments have rape kit backlogs. And the interaction a victim has with law enforcement is extremely important because law enforcement is the gatekeeper to the justice system. And if victim has a bad experience with law enforcement they're unlikely to cooperate. And they can be further traumatized even in addition to the trauma they experienced from the assault itself. That first interaction with police is extremely important in the victim's recovery.

  • 13:09:38

    DAREHSHORIWe chose to focus on Washington D.C. because the FBI numbers of reported sexual assaults here were low. In relation to murders in 2008 they reported the same numbers of sexual assault as murder, and that rarely happens. And in the few other cities in which it has happened, Baltimore and New Orleans, it was exposed the police were either un-founding cases in large numbers or misclassifying them. So the FBI numbers were a red flag that something should be looked at a little bit more closely in D.C.

  • 13:10:13

    NNAMDILet's be clear here because we are talking numbers here and we don't want to go by too quickly. You're saying that if in a jurisdiction like a city, the numbers of reported sexual assaults and the number of murders are the same, that's a red flag because sexual assault reportings usually outnumber murder reporting by a significant number.

  • 13:10:33

    DAREHSHORIThat's correct.

  • 13:10:34

    NNAMDIAnd so when in the District of Columbia they appear to be about the same, that was a red flag for you. What did your study find?

  • 13:10:43

    DAREHSHORISo when we began to look in Washington D.C. and we started to speak with people in the community who work with sexual assault victims, we immediately uncovered that there were many people in the community who were very concerned with how victims of sexual assault were being treated when they tried to go to the police for help. So it became clear very quickly that there was a problem that needed to be addressed and that it hadn't been adequately addressed when it was raised in other ways. And that people felt that coming to Human Rights Watch was a last resort.

  • 13:11:15

    DAREHSHORIAnd as part of the interview process when I was talking to people about their concerns with respect to how seriously these cases were being taken and whether or not victims were being treated sensitively, one of the issues that came to our attention was that in efforts to follow up, a few witnesses reported that when victims had asked them to look into their cases that the police found that -- well, the police didn't have case numbers assigned to those cases. And so there was a concern that the cases weren't even being documented by the police department. And so that's what led us to do the data analysis.

  • 13:11:52

    NNAMDIWhen you did the data analysis, the data told you -- and correct me if my numbers are incorrect here -- that somewhere between 35 and 40 percent of reported sexual assaults were not followed up by police to the point where cases were made.

  • 13:12:09

    DAREHSHORIWhat we did was we looked at -- when victims go to the hospital for a forensic exam there's one central location, Washington Hospital Center, and they keep track of when a victim reports to the police department because the detectives meet the victim at the hospital to interview them and which department they report to. And under police policy every victim who reports a sexual assault is supposed to have an incident report. When we -- so every time the hospital had a record of someone reporting to the MPD, we would expect the MPD to also have an incident report within a day. We gave them two days to file the report, which is supposed to be filed during an officer's shift.

  • 13:12:52

    DAREHSHORISo when we looked through the incident reports and compared them to the dates of hospital reports we could not find any record in the police department of a victim having reported for 170 cases. And we looked through their internal database as well and there's no record there either. So for 170 cases we could not find any record that a victim had reported an assault to the Metropolitan Police Department in the database or in the documents.

  • 13:13:23

    DAREHSHORIAnd an additional 34 cases where we did find a match, those cases were classified as office information cases, which under the standard operating procedures for the sexual assault unit is defined as closed and no further investigation will be done. So two -- over 200 cases or 42 percent of the cases over the three-year period we examined were effectively closed at the time the victim reported to the police.

  • 13:13:48

    NNAMDIAs we said earlier, the Metropolitan Police Department has vigorously challenged this report and questioned the data, the methodology and the motivations of Human Rights Watch. Joining us now by phone is Cathy Lanier, Chief of the Metropolitan Police Department of Washington, D.C. Chief Lanier, thank you for joining us.

  • 13:14:05

    MS. CATHY LANIERI'm glad to be on, Kojo.

  • 13:14:07

    NNAMDII wanted to lay out from Sara Darehshori what the reports says and now we're interested in hearing your response. Why do you question the data and the methodology?

  • 13:14:18

    LANIERWell, a lot of the lack of scientific review here came just from Sara's comments. I mean, just the red flag that the number of sexual assaults should always exceed homicides, that's not a very scientific method to begin with. But -- and I also want to point out, we don't have a backlog of sex kit cases. We cleared our backlog, you know, years ago.

  • 13:14:41

    LANIERSo the problem I have is that the assumption that they make that they got a log of 488 people who had sex kits done at the Washington Hospital Center. And then they sorted through our database and they gave a two-day window of time to say, if there's not a sexual assault report within two days of every time a sex kit is taken then therefore there's no investigation. Well, that in itself is just a really flawed methodology because sex kits are not -- the investigative report or the investigation does not always begin at the time when a person reports to the hospital.

  • 13:15:19

    LANIERNot only that, there are times when people will go to the Washington Hospital Center, have a sex kit done and may or may not tell the caseworker at the hospital that they've reported to the police. Sometimes victims don't report to police and they have every right to not report to police. So that in itself would be some examples.

  • 13:15:39

    LANIERWhen we replied to their first letter to us about the allegations on June 8th, and a letter is on our website, we gave several examples where there would not be a 251, as they're looking for, for an allegation. And this was an example -- and these are real examples. A complainer responded to our police headquarters and spoke with a detective and said that in 1988, 24 years ago, she was at a party, consuming drugs and alcohol with a male subject and woke up next to him nude. She did not remember any sexual assault but -- and she was an adult at the time, but there was no disclosure of a sexual assault and it was beyond the statute of limitations.

  • 13:16:22

    LANIERNow we have an open case file. We document that case so we have an open case file of this person reporting, but there would be no 251 because we can't capture a crime on a 251 under the circumstances. We took about seven or eight different examples of why there would not be a 251 under certain circumstances. But in each of those cases we actually have an investigative case file because we document every allegation that comes in, in case there is future information that comes in to allow us to then upgrade that allegation to an actual assault. And that is fairly frequent.

  • 13:16:56

    LANIERSo when this first allegation came in, I went back and I pulled every single case from 2011. We had 553 allegations come in and we had 553 investigative reports to support that. One-hundred percent of every allegation had a case file. So my real issue is that some of the allegations in this -- or the findings in this report, I'm not saying that 2006, 2007, 2008 -- a lot of what's in the report came from a 2006 case -- that there hasn't been over the past seven or eight years a detective who was insensitive, a case that wasn't handled properly. I'm sure there were.

  • 13:17:36

    LANIERBut since the new law came into effect in the District of Columbia in 2009, we completely revamped our process. We completely recycled -- moved new detectives into the unit, new training, new policies. And I am very confident that we are fully investigating cases and that we are treating our victims with respect. If I weren't I would not reach down to the Department of Justice and ask them to come in and do this independent review to show that the state of sexual assaults investigation in the District of Columbia is not what the Human Rights Watch reported saying.

  • 13:18:11

    NNAMDIChief Lanier, what you seem to be saying is that at one time there was a problem within MPD when it came to handling cases of sexual assault. You also seem to be saying that that problem no longer exists. Is that what you're saying?

  • 13:18:24

    LANIERWhat I'm saying is that is it possible that -- and I know that there have been complaints about detectives going back -- since I've been a chief and I took over in 2007 -- did we have complaints about detectives being insensitive or mishandling cases in the past five years? Yes, absolutely. In fact, we found nine cases where victims back in '08 and '09 had made complaints to the office of police complaints. Of those nine cases one of those cases was sustained, and an officers was disciplined.

  • 13:18:53

    LANIERSo what I'm saying is, yes, I think that the unit is much, much better than it was in 2008 and I do think that there occasionally is going to be an individual detective that may not handle a case extensively as they should or may drop the ball. But it's not a culture of -- and that's my problem with those reports. They paint a picture that there's a culture in the MPD that exists today that we disregard victims, we don't follow up on complaints and we don't document investigations. And that is just totally false.

  • 13:19:22

    NNAMDISara Darehshori, what Chief Lanier is saying is that, yes, there used to be a problem but in large measure that problem has been corrected at least to the point where she disputes the notion that there is a culture on this -- in this police department sexual crime unit, or even more broadly within the law enforce community. What do you say in response?

  • 13:19:46

    DAREHSHORIThe research for our investigation occurred between October, 2008 and September, 2011. In 2008 it was revealed that -- in five depositions during the civil lawsuit it was revealed that half of the time that victims reported a sexual assault police chose not to document the case because detectives indicated that they didn't believe the victim. So the problem with lack of documentation is a known problem from 2008. The chief is right about that.

  • 13:20:15

    NNAMDIWell, allow me to interrupt because the chief says there were 553 reports and 553 case files. You say no?

  • 13:20:24

    DAREHSHORIThis is what -- I mean, just to finish that point...

  • 13:20:27


  • 13:20:27

    DAREHSHORI...our research shows that the practice of not documenting cases continued until at least through 2011 at the end of our analysis. And the fact that it was brought to their attention and the fact that reforms have occurred, but the indications are that the practice continues indicates that the reforms haven't been successful, the practice does continue. The policies -- the policy changes within the department that we compared to -- are actually the same. And the policy has never been the problem because the policy has always been to document every case of sexual assault.

  • 13:21:03

    DAREHSHORISo that's -- so the problem that we believe is that the practice is inconsistent with the policy. And there hasn't been accountability for people who deviate from the policy. And that is actually a culture.

  • 13:21:18

    NNAMDISo you're saying that there is a policy in place, that there are people who deviate from that policy and that may still be continuing. Chief Lanier, what is your concern with that allegation?

  • 13:21:30

    LANIERWell, the concern with that allegation and, you know, again, I'm very confident. I did a complete review of every single case in 2011 and we found 100 percent compliance with the reporting policy. So we've done a lot of outreach. In the past two, two-and-a-half years, we've done outreach with the Nightlife Association, we've done outreach with the advocates. We've created posters to put up in various, you know, agency establishments to try and encourage reporting and get people to come forward. And it's been very successful.

  • 13:22:00

    LANIERWe've had an increase -- in 2011 -- between 2011 we saw a 23-percent jump in reporting. That's a positive measure for us. And in 2012, we saw another 50 percent jump in reporting so all of our outreach and all of the things we've put in place to make sure victims feel comfortable coming forward -- with this report painting with a flawed methodology a picture that the culture in MPD today is to treat victims poorly and not document complaints is going to send a chilling effect to the most vulnerable victims out there.

  • 13:22:35

    LANIERAnd I have to say this because I think it's really important. Human Rights Watch has a long and documented history of poor methodology. It is not unique to us. Even the founder of Human Rights Watch publicly criticized them for the exact same issues that we're criticizing them for today. They use a flawed methodology, they use overgeneralizations and they paint a picture that is not accurate.

  • 13:23:00

    LANIERAnd of all the people they interviewed -- this is an important point for people to know -- they said they interviewed 150 people. Eleven of those people were actual victims of sexual assault. And the majority of those victims and the examples in their report come from several years ago. If those victims -- and even the advocates they spoke to never reported to Metropolitan Police Department or made a complain to us, we can't correct their problem. But of all those interviews 11 total of those interviews included actual victims where they were not satisfied with the way the case was handled.

  • 13:23:35

    NNAMDISara Darehshori, what is your concern about the current practice of the Metropolitan Police Department of the District of Columbia?

  • 13:23:43

    DAREHSHORIWait, Kojo. Could I just address a couple of the issues that the chief has raised just to make sure there's some clarification? First of all, we interviewed more than a dozen victims, all of whom reported to the police, 15, 20 people. Plus we had a written documentation of -- from complaints of victims who had written testimony about how their experience -- their treatment with the MPD. But their experiences were confirmed by dozens of witnesses, advocates, nurses, community service groups who work with victims and describe the exact same type of treatment. And that information was further confirmed by the data that showed that cases were missing.

  • 13:24:24

    DAREHSHORIChecking -- every case has to have an incident report in order to be investigated. The fact that there were no incident reports means that it couldn't have been investigated. And the fact that they checked the documents they do have is not -- does not indicate what -- you can't go back and check cases that don't exist. So I'm not really sure what that practice...

  • 13:24:48

    NNAMDIWell, allow me to quote my mother, "The road to hell is paved with good intentions." The Washington Post Editorial Board recently called out both sides, Human Rights Watch and the Metropolitan Police Department, saying that they have mutually agreed interests. You seem to both agree that the objective is the same but you seem to have been, according to the Post, just as interested in impugning the integrity of one another. How and why did this become so combative?

  • 13:25:17

    DAREHSHORIHuman Rights Watch is only interested in the end results, which is better treatment for victims. We have wanted to work cooperatively with the police department on this issue. And I really think that the focus needs to remain on the victim and on improving treatment for a victim. Our concern is that if there's a denial that there's a problem that it's not really going to be fixed. And the extent of the problem exposed really does raise concerns.

  • 13:25:44

    DAREHSHORIAnd I think if you really do want to encourage victims to come forward, I think the response is, look we're not going to tolerate this kind of behavior going forward. We're sorry to hear about it. Even one victim, much less 11 victims or 15 or 25 victims or the dozens of people is too many who should be -- no one should be re-traumatized when they report to the police. But this shouldn't be about Human Rights Watch or about a dispute about the numbers of which I can go into and we would never -- someone who was assaulted in 1988 would never go to the hospital for a forensic exam 20 years later. So...

  • 13:26:20

    NNAMDIWell, allow me to raise this question. Even if there is some dispute over the figures there also seems to be a dispute over the trajectory. Chief Lanier seems to be saying that the Metropolitan Police Department is on a documented course to improvement. You seem to be saying that it's not. Is there any way the two can agree?

  • 13:26:40

    DAREHSHORINo. You know, we -- actually I do want to say that we appreciate the fact that the chief accepted our recommendation to ask for DOJ oversight. And we also appreciate the fact that they did accept a number of our recommendations. The concern we have is that the acceptance of recommendations without external oversight will not be enough to ensure that the reforms are actually being implemented.

  • 13:27:06

    NNAMDIWhat kind of external oversight would you be looking for?

  • 13:27:10

    DAREHSHORISo in Philadelphia a similar instance occurred about 13 years ago when it was exposed that the police there had been misclassifying large numbers of sexual assault cases. And the police commissioner there, rather than attack the messenger, welcomed advocacy groups into the sexual assault unit and invited them to review sexual assault files on a regular basis and raise any problems they have. And that has worked extremely well and the police department there and the advocacy groups have both reported to me that it has resulted in improved treatment of victims and extremely improved investigations.

  • 13:27:44

    NNAMDIChief Cathy Lanier, can that happen here?

  • 13:27:46

    LANIERWe have advocates that are working with the MPD and has been part of our team for the past few years. And so they have been welcomed into the MPD. We have set up all kinds of review panels internally. And in fact, I -- because of this allegation and this report if there were victims that maybe spoke to HRW from 2008 to 2011 that did not report their complaint to us, I've opened up a website where they can now report to us. Because just because they say something it is not unusual for a victim to say one thing to police and something else to a hospital staff or a practitioner. That is not uncommon at all.

  • 13:28:26

    LANIERSo I've opened up a website and said if there's anybody during any time period that didn't feel like they were -- their case was handled properly or they were treated to their satisfaction to send that in to us and we would review it. In addition to that, I've pulled two detectives to essentially do a cold case review of every single case from 2008 to present to make sure that they go back and make sure every single case -- if there was not proper documentation or there was a lack of documentation or there was any complaint that should've been followed up on that wasn't, that they would go back and, you know, reinvestigate those cases.

  • 13:29:06

    LANIERSo I'm committed to making sure we didn't miss anything during 2008 -- from 2008 to 2011. But I can tell you, a large part of what's in this report, they keep referring to the 2008 deposition. That was a 2006 case. That was before the law was changed, that was before the reforms were put in place and it was before significant changes in personnel. And again, I've got to go back to the fact that they're using those incidences to paint a picture of MPD today that is not accurate.

  • 13:29:36

    NNAMDIAnd I'm afraid that's about all the time we have. Cathy Lanier is the Chief of the Metropolitan Police Department for Washington, D.C. Chief Lanier, thank you for joining us.

  • 13:29:44

    LANIERThank you, sir.

  • 13:29:45

    NNAMDISara Darehshori, Cathy Lanier has indicated what she has done. Where does this go from here as far as Human Rights Watch is concerned?

  • 13:29:52

    DAREHSHORIWe are continuing to advocate for external advocacy, external view of investigative files. I mean, I wasn't clear from what the chief just said. I hope that she's reviewing more than just what -- cases that were classified as office information that we saw that were troubling, but actually looking more broadly at cases. Because we saw a lot of cases were rejected by prosecutors as being weak and that didn't appear to be thoroughly investigated. So we hope her reexamination of cases, which is a good idea, is very extensive.

  • 13:30:23

    NNAMDISara Darehshori is the senior counsel for the U.S. Program with Human Rights Watch. Thank you for joining us. Later in the broadcast or when we come back, the real legacy of Martin Luther King. We'll be talking with Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Taylor Branch. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

Related Links

Topics + Tags


comments powered by Disqus
Most Recent Shows

The Politics Hour — March 23, 2018

Friday, Mar 23 2018Montgomery County Councilmember Marc Elrich is running for County Executive with public financing and plans to take on developers. Kim R. Ford is challenging fourteen-term Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton for her seat. We talk to both of them about their campaigns and look at the biggest political news of the week.