Op-ed: Convicting more Utah rapists requires commitment from the top

By Heather Stringfellow

Published: January 11, 2014 01:01AM
Updated: January 11, 2014 01:01AM
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Heather Stringfellow was a sex crimes detective with the Salt Lake City Police Department and has been executive director of the Rape Recovery Center in Salt Lake City for the past six years.

I am heartened by the recent reporting on the low prosecution rate of rape in Utah. The coverage has fueled a long overdue conversation: that we need to make prosecution of rape a priority in our state.

There has been a fair amount of finger pointing in terms of where the fault lies: victims choosing to not follow though with a painful and drawn out process, investigators not putting together and screening cases, or prosecutors not filing cases often enough. But the answer is not that easy or simple. The problem is multifaceted and institutionalized, and a shift to hold rapists accountable will take a great deal of will and determination on our part.

My experience is that most police officers and detectives intend to investigate rape cases properly. However, they are hamstrung from the start. Training on best practices for frontline officers and detectives is rare, and heavy case loads limit the time an investigator can spend on each case. Many rape cases go nowhere because the initial investigation was cursory and investigators are forced to choose “the winners” to devote limited resources.

Compounding the capacity issue is the victim-blaming paradigm that spills into the criminal justice system. Our society spends too much time dissecting a victim’s “story” — deciding which are ‘legit’ — and too little time listening to victims without bias and gathering evidence to prove the case. My experience working with rape victims for 20 years is that few victims make false reports.

Adult rape cases do not have the statutory requirements of child or domestic cases. Officers are not required to follow a state sanctioned best-practice protocol in adult cases, nor screen the case with a prosecutor or a sexual assault response team. The result is that too often cases are summarily closed for reasons not based on the veracity of the case.

The truth is that leaders on every level within the criminal justice system need to be doing more for victims of rape in Utah. Part of the problem is that no one has accepted responsibility for creating excellence in our response to sex crimes. It is the state office who should be leading out, or is it a local problem? Is it the county attorney who should be creating a pro-prosecution framework or is it up to police departments to train their officers?

The paradigm shift starts with state leaders. Gov. Herbert and new Attorney General Reyes should make sexual violence a priority in their office and budgets. Our state legislature should establish laws that delineate a minimum standard for investigations and support funding for law enforcement to hire enough officers and train them well. Lastly, leaders on the municipal level need to include transparency and accountability in every job in their department that impacts victims of violent crime and establish protocols that institutionalize a victim-centered approach to rape investigations.

What we know from child and domestic cases is that when you implement a victim-centered team approach, the quality of investigation improves. Victims are better served, and prosecution rates go up. There are model victim-centered response policies in place in communities across the nation that we can borrow from, including an excellent model released by the International Association of Chiefs of Police in 2010.

As a community we should not settle for 6 percent of rapists brought to justice for their crime. I am confident that we can increase the rate of prosecution in Utah with a long-term commitment from the decision makers. Prosecution of rape does not equal prevention, but that is a whole other conversation.

Heather Stringfellow is a former sex crimes investigator and advocate for victims of sexual violence.