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Salt Lake City police selected for study of sexual assault investigations

Published August 3, 2014 8:24 pm

Crime • Groups will review four departments to try to determine best practices nationwide.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2014, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

The federal government and a research group are going to examine the Salt Lake City police, among others, with the goal of determining best practices for investigating sexual assault nationwide.

Police Chief Chris Burbank announced that his department has been selected, among three others, at Saturday's annual SlutWalk march.

The study, which will be conducted by the Police Executive Research Forum and the U.S. Department of Justice's Office on Violence Against Women, is still in the early planning stages, according to a Salt Lake City police news release. The groups will review how Salt Lake police handle sexual assault investigations, "determine what we do right, what we do inappropriately and what we could do better," Burbank said, standing on the steps of the City/County Building.

He expects the study will begin in a month or so, and take about a year to complete.

His department has already been under local scrutiny this year, when the City Council asked why Burbank's department had shelved or destroyed 79 percent of its rape kits between 2003 and 2011. Burbank maintained that his department spared no resources when seeking perpetrators, pointed to instances when processing the kits was unnecessary and that the state crime lab was slow to process kits.

The problem is not unique to Salt Lake City. There is plenty of fault to go around, including police in many jurisdictions not understanding what a rape victim experiences, Rape Recovery Center Director Holly Mullen said earlier this year.

"Part of the problem is that police will accuse a victim of lying, and they won't turn in their rape kits [to the state crime lab]," she said in an interview earlier this year. " A lot of cops are stuck in the mentality of, 'she asked for it.'"

It's that kind of mindset that an event like SLUTwalk wants to undo. The event, one of others around the world, is designed to fight back against placing blame on the victims of a sexual assault, particularly because of what they wore.

The national movement began after a Toronto police officer, speaking at a college in 2011, reportedly told women to avoid "dressing like sluts" as a way to prevent being raped, according to the Toronto Star. The officer has since apologized, the Star adds.

Burbank pointed out Saturday that there have been improvements to community support for victims of crime in the past few years, such as the development of the Family Justice Center. "But we can do much better."

The police chief expressed his hope on Saturday that people will come forward to tell his department where they can improve.

"Without the partnership of the community to come forward and say 'this is what happened to me,' I can't improve," Burbank said. "My officers won't improve. But to have you trust us enough to come forward and say this is what I've experienced, and this is what you can do better, I welcome that."

Sexual assaults are some of the most sensitive matters officers are ever involved in, and victims are not always trustful of them, he added.

"I don't blame them," Burbank said. "You look throughout history and the impact that we have on people as we investigate… it becomes very easy to forget that we're not just asking you the facts. We are caring for individuals. And that's the approach we should always take."

In response to the rape kits matter, the Salt Lake City police launched a website that lists evidence from the kit (without identifying the victim) and whether the kit was forwarded, in an effort to add transparency to the process. The Utah Department of Public Safety, which oversees the state lab, is also seeking private firms to process the kits.

mmcfall@sltrib.com

Twitter: @mikeypanda