Has Bill Cosby Changed the Way Police Investigate Rape?


At the new year’s dawn, New York Police Commissioner William J. Bratton made an unprecedented announcement: The city had experienced a sharp increase in reported rapes, driven in part by victims bringing forward years-old assaults. One fifth of the assaults reported in 2015 happened at least a year prior to the police complaint, dating back as far as 1975. 

Bratton called this “the Cosby Effect.”

Data from police departments across the country, using the FBI’s latest definition, show the so-called Cosby Effect hasn’t struck only New York. Since the entertainer’s highly public downfall, people in America’s biggest cities began reporting more rapes, especially rapes from the past.

Last year, the District of Columbia saw an 11 percent increase in sexual assaults. The number of delayed reports — attacks that happened prior to the year in which they were reported — jumped from 20 to 28.

Philadelphia saw a 9 percent increase, with delayed reports rising from 110 to 121. Houston’s reported sexual assaults jumped 19 percent, with delayed reports climbing from 76 to 125.

Los Angeles logged a 12 percent increase in reported rapes, while Chicago’s count surged 7 percent. New York’s sum, meanwhile, grew 6 percent.

The Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network, an advocacy organization for victims of sexual violence, also saw a 10 percent increase of calls to its hotline last year.

A cultural shift
The amount of sexual assaults reported in each city likely doesn’t reflect how many rapes actually happen there. An estimated 32 percent of rapes lead to a police report , according to figures from the Department of Justice, and a mere 2 percent lead to a conviction.

That’s why the recent reporting surge is a good thing, said Carol Tracy, executive director of the the National Women’s Law Center, a Philadelphia advocacy organization that leads research on police response to sex crimes. Higher numbers mean more victims feel empowered to speak up, and more authorities are listening.

But the furor around Cosby, who has been accused of sexual assault by more than 50 women and is due back in court Tuesday, didn’t alone spark the trend.

What Bratton dubbed the Cosby Effect has little to do with Cosby and more to do with the country’s evolving understanding of rape.

Over the past five years, Tracy said, the growing pressure to take victims seriously — rather than blame them or question their motives — has altered the way law enforcement handles rape investigations. Officers, for instance, are more receptive to delayed reports nowadays.

“These are the kinds of cases that, if you tried to take one to many jurisdictions years ago, they just wouldn’t take it,” Tracy said. “They just wouldn’t count it in their numbers.”

The cultural shift, she theorizes, stemmed from years of grassroots work in communities by rape crisis centers and a raft of cases that caught the public’s eye and triggered police criticism.

Take the case of Anthony Sowell, a serial rapist who killed 11 women in Cleveland, Ohio, before his arrest in 2009. Outrage erupted when the public learned that, after a woman reported Sowell choking and raping her, officers took 37 days to visit Sowell’s house, where the bodies were buried.

Delayed reports rise
After several of Cosby’s accusers described assaults that unfolded in the city, New York police started collecting the years associated with each rape, releasing the first round of data in January.

A victim in Queens, for instance, reported an assault from 1975. Another in Brooklyn told police about a 1999 rape. Another in Manhattan described an attack from 2003.

“Some of the rapes [Bill Cosby] is accused of go back 30 or 40 years,” Bratton said on a popular New York City radio show. “We have really made a concerted effort to try and encourage the victims of rape to come forward.”

Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck also spoke publicly about the Cosby accusations, promising the department would investigate any related complaint, no matter how old. “You come to us, especially with a sexual allegation, we will work with you,” Beck said in 2014. “We address these things seriously, and it’s not just because it’s Mr. Cosby.”

Removing barriers
Sgt. Elizabeth Donegan, a 23-year veteran of the Austin Police Department, said police officers in Texas and other states are working to internalize the idea that trauma can impact a victim’s ability to recall information. Someone who’s trying to explain what happened during a sexual assault may appear to be lying, she said, and officers may instinctively slip into interrogation mode.

The APD also stopped asking sexual assault victims to sign forms declaring they wouldn’t commit perjury — a step that could make an already traumatized person feel under investigation.

“Removing barriers like sworn statements was big,” Donegan said. “But I need to be clear — law enforcement still has a long way to go.”

In January, U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch called for a sustained effort to fix the way authorities handle rape investigations, releasing new Justice Department guidelines that urged officers to address their misconceptions.

“Acting on stereotypes about why women … are sexually assaulted, or about how a victim of domestic violence or sexual assault should look or behave,” the document states, “can constitute unlawful discrimination and profoundly undermine an effective response to these crimes.”

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Source: The Washington Post | Danielle Paquette