Trigger warning: Content regarding negligent treatment of a survivor of sexual assault.filler filler
The impact of Officer Todd Smith’s egregious behavior while responding to the July 14th, 2012, forcible rape complaint in Charles City, Iowa, is being felt nation-wide.
My pride for being a former resident of “America’s Hometown” is overshadowed by the heavy-heart I feel about the events that took place on July 14th, and in the months following. According to neighboring towns’ local newspapers – The Globe Gazette and The Waterloo Cedar Falls Courier – Officer Smith responded to a report of a forcible rape in which he: Expressed doubt that injuries on the accuser’s body were caused by a sexual assault; applied guilt to the accuser by linking her alcohol consumption to rape; accused her of lying about the rape because “these things tend to come up when a person has been cheating on their significant other and wants to avoid being caught”; failed to transport the accuser to a medical facility for a care and treatment; and, provided misinformation regarding basic principles involving the collection of forensic evidence in cases of sexual assault.
In my position as the Assistant Director of Intervention and Best Care of the New York City Alliance Against Sexual Assault, I direct New York State’s largest training institute to prepare medical professionals to become Sexual Assault Forensic Examiners (SAFE). SAFEs, or SANEs (Sexual Assault Nurse Examiners) as they are referred to in Iowa, are the individuals tasked with performing “rape kits”, (technically known as “Sexual Offense Evidence Collection Kits”) on patients reporting acute sexual assault. While I regularly lecture on the psychological impact of trauma on the mind and body, my roots in the anti-violence movement began with providing counseling to, and advocating on behalf of, survivors of sexual assault and intimate partner violence at a grassroots crisis intervention program in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. My expertise has afforded me the opportunity to travel the world, including a recent trip to the country of Jordan, a collaborative effort of the U.S. Department of State and the Jordanian government, in order to train law enforcement officers on best practices for working with survivors of sexual assault.
Officer Smith’s conduct during his interaction with the accuser is a perfect case example for my students: How not to handle disclosures of sexual violence.
According to a 2011 study released by The National Center for Injury Prevention and Control (formerly known as the Center for Disease Control), 1 in 5 women, and 1 in 71 men, in the United States have been raped in their lifetime. The study also reports that in 80% of the reported incidences of violence, the perpetrator was known to the victim. Given those statistics, along with the fact that young people ages 16-24 are at greatest risk for victimization, it would behoove us to acknowledge that sexual violence is a public health crisis in the United States.
Drawing from scientific research, psychological ideologies and anecdotal experience, I’ll share what we know to be true about sexual assault and survivors of sexual violence:
- We know that forensic evidence can be collected from the body up to 96 hours post an assault. Victims of sexual assault are strongly encouraged to seek medical attention at a local hospital following an assault, even if they have already showered. At this visit, victims are given medication to prevent pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections, including HIV Post Exposure Prophylaxis. This hospital visit is free of charge to the victim; each state has a Crime Victims Compensation Program that offsets the cost of performing health care and forensic exams for survivors.
- We know that, while there are a number of street drugs that can be used to facilitate rape, alcohol remains the most commonly used substance in drug-related sexual assault.
- We know that blaming the victim for an attack is practiced widely in our culture. This practice has a chilling effect on survivors. Victims of sexual violence are deeply ashamed, humiliated and fearful of scrutiny of their private life. Many are afraid to report the crime for fear of being “put on trial.”
- We know that historically marginalized and disenfranchised persons are at greater risk for victimization and exploitation by individuals in a position of power and authority, due to factors such as: sexuality and gender expression; immigration status; chemical dependencies; cultural and language barriers; intellectual and developmental disabilities; incarceration; lower socioeconomic status; and past history of victimization.
- We know there is no general “standard” for which survivors respond to their account(s) of victimization. Survivors experience a gamut of emotions – anger, confusion, disassociation, disbelief, etc. Some survivors even continue to go about their daily lives as if nothing happened. These reactions can be coping mechanisms, and are often chemically induced when the brain attempts to process a traumatic event.
- We know false accusations are extremely rare. According to a study by the American Prosecutors Research Institute, false rape allegations account for 2 – 8% of all reported rapes.
- We know that sexual assault is one of the most under-reported crimes. Over 60% are never reported. This can be attributed to the secrecy and shame that encompasses the crime, confusion over the occurrence, fear of retaliation, and a host of other feelings that arise when the perpetrator is someone we know.
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Chief Mike Wendell, let this be an opportunity for you and for your department to be a leader in law enforcement among your peers. Regardless of the outcome of this particular case with Officer Smith, now is the time to build and strengthen your relationships with community partners and experts in the field of anti-sexual violence. You have an incredible resource afforded to you in that the Iowa Coalition Against Sexual Assault, a statewide organization of 28 sexual assault crisis centers across Iowa, continues to gain national spotlight for their innovative services, advocacy and training programs. Building your department’s capacity to better understand and, in turn, respond to reports of sexual assault and rape leads to preservation of forensic evidence, strengthens the investigatory skills of your officers, improves criminal justice outcomes and prevents re-victimization of survivors navigating the criminal justice system. Furthermore, building partnership with a nearby rape crisis program means that you can also call upon advocates to help explain to victims the tedious, sometimes harsh, process of proving or disproving allegations of rape and sexual assault.
To the survivor behind this story: I believe you. This wasn’t your fault and I’m so very sorry this happened to you. You are not alone. Along with my colleagues at the New York City Alliance Against Sexual Assault, the advocate community and countless survivors of sexual violence, I stand in solidarity with you on the East Coast.
Let this be a lesson for all of us: Survivors of sexual violence are our neighbors, our friends, our loved ones. Survivors are you and me. This epidemic is happening in our communities and in our homes. Therefore, the consequences of violence and the prevention of violence must be a community-owned.
Assistant Director, Intervention and Best Care
New York City Alliance Against Sexual Assault
Kira Laffe brings to the Alliance an expertise in combating sexual violence through her work with communities directly affected, and her passion to foster social change through a multi-issue perspective. She has designed and conducted educational and training programs in detention centers, youth shelters, substance abuse treatment facilities, on college campuses, and among service professionals at the state, national and international level.