The Importance Of Data In
Sexual Assault Cases
More than 50 percent of calls to 911 are related to domestic violence and sexual assault, but insufficient reporting practices could be leading to a breakdown in justice.
According to a panel of survivor justice advocates, analysts and software developers, one of the keys to an increase in the efficacy of the criminal justice system for survivors of sexual assault and abuse is simple: data.
On Oct. 6th, 2016, The Center for Data Innovation, a think tank that studies “the intersection of data, technology and public policy,” hosted a livestreamed panel in Washington, D.C. called, How Data Can Help in the Fight Against Sexual Assault. The panel included Carrie Bettinger-Lopez, the White House Advisor on Violence Against Women; Amanda Nguyen, president and founder of Rise, a “national civil rights nonprofit working…to implement a Sexual Assault Survivors’ Bill of Rights;” and Cindy Southworth, executive vice president of the National Network to End Domestic Violence.
Bettinger-Lopez outlined some of the issues that both precede and lead to the discrepancies often found in law enforcement response to sexual assault. While she praised the passing of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), a law that Vice President Joe Biden drafted and championed in 1994 as a senator, she readily acknowledged that there are still many shortcomings regarding justice for survivors.
She emphasized, “In this country, we’re in the midst of this important national dialogue on issues of implicit bias in the criminal justice system, and specifically in the law enforcement arena. And it’s so important that we make sure we’re looking at all of the places where…bias may exist.”
Bettinger-Lopez noted that, in many jurisdictions, more than 50 percent of calls to 911 are related to domestic violence and sexual assault. Insufficient funding of departments, gender bias, victim-blaming, outdated policies and protocol, and the low-priority value on prosecution of domestic violence and sexual assault cases all play a role in how all levels of law enforcement respond to the epidemic of violence against people assigned female at birth.
This leads to a breakdown of trust in law enforcement, as evidenced by a national survey conducted by the National Domestic Violence Hotline, which found that 52 percent of the 637 polled during a one-month period had chosen not to interact with police, citing privacy, fear of escalation, and fear of not being believed as primary reasons for not reporting. In addition, of those who had interacted with the police, only 1 out of 7 were ‘extremely likely’ to call them again.
Nguyen cited other issues as well, partly informed by her own experience as a survivor. Through her interaction with law enforcement in the Baltimore, Md. area, she learned of many dysfunctional, if not outright illegal, practices such as mismanagement, losing or destroying evidence and insufficient reporting practices.
In addition, as has been reported across the country, thousands of rape kits – often an essential piece in the puzzle of solving sexual assault cases – routinely go untested, left in rooms to be forgotten.
Many of the panelists work directly with law enforcement. According to their personal experiences and data, there are various explanations for some of these issues, from a law enforcement perspective. The primary barriers are resource driven. Technology has progressed rapidly, but often, new tech is fit to old processes (as opposed to full upgrades) due to lack of resources.
Of course, no tool is perfect and data is no exception. There are many ways to track sexual assault – varying definitions and varying reporting methods. Additionally, it can only be so thorough, which leaves a gap between reported incidences versus actual occurrences, which they emphasized we know are prevalent.
However, the overwhelming consensus was that data, while imperfect, is an essential tool in the fight against sexual assault. It can help break down the current paradigm of rape culture, a term coined by feminists in the 1970s to describe the everyday and systemic ways of functioning that normalize negative and incorrect ideas about sexual assault and survivors in society, thereby allowing sexual violence to continue.
By presenting the facts and educating those on the ground in law enforcement about demographic data and the actual issues that survivors face, experts and activists can bridge the gap between police and communities. Armed with better data, law enforcement can become better advocates for survivors and learn from the mistakes of the past.
Denarii (rhymes with “canary”) is an aspiring screenwriter, freelance writer, activist, and a weirdo. She’s a Rutgers University alum and a two-year Pace University dropout; she studied English and Adolescent Education, respectively. She’s written for BlogHer, Black Girl Dangerous, Extra Crispy, The Development Set, The Billfold, Everyday Feminism, and several more. Follow her on Twitter @writersdelite and Instagram @writersdelite.