Police Officer Decision Making in Reported Sexual Assault Cases
Venema, Rachel M.
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The prevalence of sexual assault and its consequences for individuals and society has been the subject of much research and advocacy even though most cases remain unreported and when reported, rarely move through the criminal justice and legal systems. This study uses a mixed methods approach in order to understand police officer perceptions of sexual assault reports and the factors that might influence their perceptions and decision making processes. Findings indicate wide variability in police officer perceptions of reported sexual assaults as “legitimate” and perceptions of victims as credible. Officers consider reported sexual assaults involving strangers, the use or threat of a weapon, and evidence of injury, as more clearly legitimate. The majority of sexual assaults reported to the police are considered ambiguous, often because of prior relationship between the victim and suspect, substance use or intoxication, a lack of clear non-consent, and a lack of evidence in general. There is less variation in officer’s reported behavioral intentions, indicating that one’s procedural response is routine, and all reports are responded to thoroughly. Officers also show wide variability in acceptance of rape myths and attributions of blame towards the suspect. Some officers point out the propensity for false reporting in sexual assault, however, many others counter this assumption, and argue that police officers should never make judgments about the veracity of a reported sexual assault. This research has implications for the way in which first responders—often police officers, health care workers, social service providers, mental health professionals and victim advocates—take action in a dignifying manner with those who have experienced sexual assault and have reported the incident with the hopes of achieving justice.
Criminal Justice System