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Last year, a controversial Human Rights Watch report harshly criticized the Metropolitan Police Department’s handling of sexual assault cases. The MPD disputed some of the findings of that report, noting internal reforms were already underway. Now the D.C. Council has passed a bill pushed by victim advocates giving victims the right to have an advocate present during police interviews, and to see results of their rape kit tests. We explore what the legislation means for sexual assault cases in the District going forward.
- Sherelle Hessell-Gordon Executive Director, DC Rape Crisis Center
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, much of what we know about foreign conflicts comes from images captured on the front lines, whether by amateurs with cell phones or professional photojournalists. We will look at the challenge of documenting a war zone. But first, last week, legislation in D.C. involving victims of sexual assault passed the first of two votes on the D.C. council.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIVictims would have the right to an advocate present during the investigative process and the bill mandates an independent review every six months of police reforms around this issue. This comes after criticism of the metropolitan police department's handling of sexual assault cases, including a Human Rights Watch report last year. The police department took issue with that report, but agreed that there were real problems for which reforms were already underway.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIJoining us to discuss this new legislation is Sherelle Hessell-Gordon. She is the executive director of the D.C. Rape Crisis Center. Sherelle Hessell-Gordon, thank you for joining us.
MS. SHERELLE HESSELL-GORDONThank you for having me.
NNAMDIYou can join the conversation with a phone call, 800-433-8850, with a tweet @kojoshow or with email to firstname.lastname@example.org. What do you think of reforms D.C. to the handling of sexual assault cases? Sherelle, prior to this legislation, what were some concerns that victims' advocates have when it comes to the handling of sexual assault cases here in the District?
HESSELL-GORDONI think that most of agencies that respond to the need of sexual assault survivors were working from their own intention or their own outcomes. I think what this legislation, a lot of what advocates are trying to do is spin that a little bit and have it be more victim-centered, more victim focused, understanding that survivors access us in different areas of their transition into healing.
HESSELL-GORDONBut what we'd like to do is set a standard and this legislation does just that.
NNAMDISets the standard for the participation of victims themselves in the process so that their voices can be heard, so to speak?
HESSELL-GORDONWell, more around the standard for service providers in responding to the needs of sexual assault survivors.
NNAMDII'll tell you what. Let's talk about the main elements of the bill. It's known as the Sexual Assault Victim's Right Amendment Act or SAVRAA. It passed the first two votes in the D.C. council last week. What do you feel are the main elements in this bill?
HESSELL-GORDONWell, the right to have an advocate is so important, and particularly during the forensics' exam and the police investigation. And so what this means is that as they're going through the processes of an exam that there is someone there that is specifically focused on supporting their process, supporting their response, supporting their -- ingesting all of the things that are currently going on during this transition of the exam or the investigation.
HESSELL-GORDONThere's someone there solely connected to the outcome of meeting and responding to their emotional desires at that time.
NNAMDIIs that because during that period, the sexual assault victim is generally in a state of either confusion or trauma?
HESSELL-GORDONYes. That's exactly right. And so to have someone there specifically, solely there to support and comfort them during, you know, a very invasive exam, like a forensic exam or to be there to support them as they're telling their stories or going through the questions during a police investigation.
NNAMDIHow would this advocate be chosen or be selected?
HESSELL-GORDONWell, we're still working out the details in regards to the standard of what an advocate, based on the legislation, really looks like. There are standards across the country in regards to training and certification and so part of the process in implementing the legislation is to have a team to figure out those details.
NNAMDIOur guest is Sherelle Hessell-Gordon. She's the executive director of the D.C. Rape Crisis Center. Do you think victims need more protection when it comes to sexual assault cases? Give us a call, 800-433-8850 or send email to email@example.com. This legislation, if passed, would give survivors the right to the results of their rape kits, the tests that are done in the hospital after a sexual assault.
NNAMDIThis is something I suspect many of us assumed was already the case.
HESSELL-GORDONWell, it's more around the timeframe that they get access to the information. And so the one great thing about D.C. is that our backlog in regards to rape cases is little to none. The last time I checked, we were at seven. So when you're talking a metropolitan area, we have a great response time in regards to processing the rape kits. It's how then do you transition in communicating those results to survivors of sexual assault and if there's an impending case, what does that look like, how does that information impact the process of the case?
HESSELL-GORDONSo this just says that survivors have a right to that information and that is a standard practice.
NNAMDISAVRAA, this Sexual Assault Victims Rights Amendment Act also provides for more transparency and for review mechanisms in the handling of sexual assault cases. Can you talk about that, first, about the semiannual public reports on the police department's progress on implementing reforms?
HESSELL-GORDONWell, I think this is around -- it's connected in a couple of different ways. One, in regards to a team reviewing the cases, there's already a SART in place, currently, that handles and is coming up with standards in regards to reviewing cases. But, again, this sets the standard. This is not about relationships and whether we think it's a good idea or not. It's about whether there's someone in the room that started this process or 50 years from now that there is a standard that continues to review cases from a collective perspective of experts who can inform the system to respond to sexual assault survivors in a more intentional way.
NNAMDIThis legislation would also establish a taskforce to recommend further reforms, including more roles for organizations like yours, the D.C. Rape Crisis Center.
HESSELL-GORDONCorrect. And I think once we initiate our conversation about how we can be better and this legislation provides the avenue to do that, we need experts, including survivors of sexual assault to say, how can we respond to the need better, understanding that we have different ends. So the police officers, of course, want to solve a case and the forensic nurses want to collect evidence to help support that effort.
HESSELL-GORDONCommunity advocates want to respond to the holistic growth development healing journey of survivors. We come from very different points of access, but we all want to respond to the need. How can we do that better? This legislation provides the avenue and open-ended way in which we can continue to evolve in responding to that need.
NNAMDIYou lead the District's oldest rape crisis center, the country's oldest rape crisis center, as a matter of fact.
NNAMDITell us a little bit about what it does.
HESSELL-GORDONWell, currently, right now, we provide direct services that include a 24-hour hotline. We provide support groups of many varieties and free counseling services. We also do policy and legislative work. We provide community education presentations. We also have preventive groups, which are our SAS clubs and Good Touch, Bad Touch. And we provide capacity-building opportunities for organizations who are now seeing survivors come across their doors.
NNAMDIWhat role did your organization play in developing this legislation?
HESSELL-GORDONWell, we organized survivors. We supported and equipped them with opportunities to gain experience around testifying in front of the council. We talked with other advocates in regards to how to implement this in a real time way, understanding that once legislation is written, there has to be an implementation process that is real for organizations.
HESSELL-GORDONSo how do we inform those systems in a way to understand that rights and a standard come first? And then, it's up to us in a systematic way to then figure out how to implement those efforts. So we were all part of that conversation. At the same time, while illuminating survivors with their own perspective.
NNAMDII'm glad you mentioned survivors because this may seem like an obvious and maybe even stupid question, but perhaps the answer is not. Why is it important to include survivors in this discussion?
HESSELL-GORDONWell, I think any person that is working towards an end in a constituency that is most effective, needs to first be informed by that constituency and so to have legislation and then talk about a survivor, but then not have survivors inform that process seems like there's a disconnect. And so we thought it was important to support survivors in actualizing this goal and what better way to do that, not to translate that information, but to have them sitting side by side with us?
NNAMDIThe metropolitan police department of the District declined to join us for today's conversation, but they did provide a statement indicating that they are prepared to work with a variety of organizations and there are a few other organizations working with this and there's a coalition of organizations. Can you talk a little bit about those organizations?
HESSELL-GORDONYes. So there's CASS and...
NNAMDICollective Action For Safe Spaces.
HESSELL-GORDONThat's correct. And then, there's D.C. Now. And both of those, along with many other just community folk who have signed on, organize from a community advocacy perspective. We have a mission to respond to the needs of sexual assault survivors, but be accountable and responsible to doing -- that work with them. And so we organized around illuminating the voices of survivors in this effort.
HESSELL-GORDONWe felt like that was largely done in a very professional way, but we wanted to do some grass roots organizing to make sure that the voices that are most affected are in the room in this policy initiative as well.
NNAMDIDespite the tension around the Human Rights Watch report that I mentioned earlier, your organization regularly works with the metropolitan police department. Can you talk a little bit about that?
HESSELL-GORDONRight. I think it's all about relationships with us. So if we hear from survivors that there are problems in regards to how they're being responded to by the police department, then it's as easy as picking up a call to Peter Newsham and saying -- Assistant Chief Newsham and saying, hey, we're hearing this. Have you heard anything about it? We have direct connections and relationships with the sexual assault unit.
HESSELL-GORDONAnd then, also, we provide training and technical assistance around ways that they can respond to the need better, particularly around marginalized communities that we often serve more than other community organizations might.
NNAMDIThis legislation passed a committee vote by the Judiciary Committee and the Public Safety Committee. What's the next step on the D.C. council?
HESSELL-GORDONSo it goes to the full council and then to the mayor and we foresee that it's going to slide right through with a unanimous vote...
NNAMDIIn the council?
HESSELL-GORDONYes. We believe that that's going to occur and then onto the mayor's office.
NNAMDIAnd you expect that if it's passed unanimously or not, the mayor is, you think, going to sign it.
HESSELL-GORDONOh, yes. I believe he will.
NNAMDISherelle Hessell-Gordon is the executive director of the D.C. Rape Crisis Center. Thank you so much for joining us and good luck to you.
HESSELL-GORDONThank you so much for having me.
NNAMDII say good luck because Sherelle has only been on the job since January of this year, correct?
NNAMDIAll right. We'll be talking to you more going forward. We'll be taking a short break now. When we come back, much of what we know about foreign conflicts comes from images captured on the front lines, whether by amateurs with cell phones of professional photojournalists. We'll be looking at the challenge of documenting a war zone. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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