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Investigating Rape Crimes, Part 1: Guidelines for first responders

Maintaining the chain of evidence is crucial

By Dr. Larry Jetmore

My next series of investigative columns focuses on the crime of rape. Due to the unique nature of the crime and the frequency in which physical evidence plays a pivotal role in obtaining a conviction, rape poses significant challenges to the investigator.

Different definitions of what constitutes the crime of rape are used at the federal, state and local level. For the purposes of this column, rape is defined as sexual intercourse against a person’s will by force or threat of force. Forcible rape – the term used to classify rape from other sexual crimes – is the only sex offense that is an index crime in the Federal Bureau Reports (UCR). (The FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting Program collects offense information for eight crime classifications: murder and non-negligent manslaughter, forcible rape, robbery, aggravated assault, burglary, larceny-theft, motor vehicle theft and arson.) Many consider forcible rape the most serious crime a person can commit after murder.

Rape is usually thought of as a male-on-female crime, and this column will lean that way as well. However, the number of reported rapes among persons of the same sex is steadily rising. Social stigma remains a strong force in the underreporting of all forcible rapes, and studies indicate the crime is substantially underreported when it involves persons of the same gender.

Many states now use the term “sexual assault” rather than rape in order to differentiate between a variety of legal variables regarding severity of punishment and the significance of the physical and psychological threat to the victim and/or the public. These factors may include the age of the victim, the perpetrator’s age, mental capacity, the ability under law to give consent, the use or threat of a weapon, physical injury to the victim, spousal or another legal relationship and so on. In addition, many jurisdictions divide sexual assault into a series of graded offenses depending on the perceived legal seriousness of the crime and aggravating conditions, and they may range from sexual assault, first degree, through sexual assault in the fourth degree.

Due to the significant physical and psychological impact to the victim and prevailing social attitudes toward rape crimes, establishing a criminal act has in fact occurred (“corpus delicti” is more complex than in other cases. Investigators must establish that the required elements of a rape crime can be proven under the court standard of not just probable cause, but beyond a reasonable doubt. The entire case may hinge on whether consent was present or forensic evidence links a suspect to the crime.

Scope of the Crime Why Rape Often Goes Unreported

According to the UCR, 94,635 persons were raped in the United States in 2004. Note: These figures represent only reported forcible rapes. Although we don’t know exactly how many people are raped each year, according to a 1999 FBI law enforcement bulletin, up to 84 percent of all sexual assaults go unreported. In Criminal investigation (McGraw Hill, 2006), the authors cite a series of studies indicating why women do not report being raped:

  • Worries of unsympathetic treatment from police and discomforting procedures;
  • Lack of belief in the police’s ability to apprehend the suspect;
  • Fear of further victimization by court proceedings (a result of television programs or newspaper reports);
  • Embarrassment about publicity, however limited; and
  • Fear of reprisal by the rapist.

Other textbooks on criminal investigation posit insensitive treatment by law enforcement personnel is the primary cause rape is not reported. This may be true in isolated instances, but in my 30 years of investigative experience, the police officers I’ve worked with fully understand the psychological trauma experienced by rape victims and go to great lengths to treat the victim with compassion and professionalism. What may be lacking is the coordinated skill set in investigation rape from organizational (administration to management), supervisory and line perspectives. This column will discuss dispatcher and first responder duties.

First Contact

The central theme behind the latest in computer-aided dispatching is a patrol strategy, which focuses on preventing crime and initiates rapid response if it does occur. Most police administrators plan police assignments under the theory of police omnipresence: the police are everywhere, and if you commit a crime you will be rapidly apprehended. However, according to Bureau of Justice statistics, almost 80 percent of forcible rapes occur in an indoor location and feature some relationship between the victim and offender. So, police patrol probably won’t prevent rape.

From a law enforcement perspective, we want to quickly arrest the perpetrator using investigative techniques that ensure a conviction and a process that causes the least amount of psychological trauma to the victim. More likely than not, this will begin with a call from the victim to police headquarters. How civilian-police dispatch or other communications personnel handle this initial contact proves critical. Depending on the variables presented in the initial contact, police administrators should ensure personnel do the following:

  1. Ask the victim whether she has sustained serious physical injury and needs immediate medical assistance. If so, dispatch an ambulance;
  2. Ask the victim if she can identify or describe the suspect. Follow protocol relative to providing this information to patrol units;
  3. Immediately dispatch a patrol unit to the scene;
  4. Tell the victim to wait for the police to arrive if she is in a safe location;
  5. Instruct the victim not to alter her physical appearance or touch anything on scene; and
  6. Advise the victim not to was or douche before she undergoes a medical examination.

The natural instinct of rape victims is to wash, douche, change clothing and use other self-help mechanisms. First-contact personnel should do everything possible to ensure the victim does not doe this. In addition to the location where the rape actually took place (or in the case of an abduction, the point of contact and release), the victim is the crime scene. Although most forcible rape cases are legitimate and investigators should proceed under that assumption, investigators do have a responsibility to those falsely accused. We can best fulfill this responsibility by conducting a thorough investigation. Unlike many other crimes, convictions in rape cases may require corroborative evidence in addition to the victim’s testimony in court. This makes the proper gathering and documentation of physical evidence absolutely essential.

First Responder Duties

As with any other violent crime, the first officer on scene must ensure the victim receives medical attention. Paramedics must bring the victim to a hospital for medical care and a physical examination to establish the crime of rape or sexual assault. Investigators will take the victim’s garments as evidence, so officers should bring a change of clothes for the victim to the hospital whenever possible. The time to plan for this is early in the interaction. Many victims will have an advocate or friend with them to call on their behalf. Give this person the assignment of getting a change of clothing for the victim. Maintaining the chain of evidence is crucial, and a police officer, preferably a female officer, should accompany the victim in the ambulance.

In addition to following normal procedures in protecting primary and secondary crime scenes, one of the first responders should conduct a preliminary interview with the victim in private to determine if she knows or can identify the person who raped her. The officer should obtain a physical description of the rapist and ask the victim to explain what happened. The investigator, a rape counselor, or another care provider will conduct a detailed follow-up interview in a setting most comfortable to the victim.

Goals for Searching the Crime Scene

The crime scene encompasses all areas in which people connected with a crime were located shortly before and after the crime. Both the perpetrator and victim moved through physical locations in order for crime to be committed, while the crime was committed and after the crime was committed. In searching a crime scene, we operate under the premise that whenever human beings interact with any inanimate or animate object, something is either taken away or left behind. The objectives of the search of a crime scene in a forcible rape case are the same as in any other major case:

  1. Reconstruct what happened and establish that a crime occurred;
  2. Identify, document and collect evidence of what occurred;
  3. Link the victim and the suspect to the scene of the crime;
  4. Identify and locate any witnesses; and
  5. Identify and apprehend the person(s) who committed the crime.

My next article will focus on establishing a relationship with area hospitals, the type of physical evidence unique to the crime of rape and the legal criteria for obtaining evidence, such as DNA, from the victim and any suspects.

Continue to Part 2 of this series.

Dr. Larry Jetmore
Dr. Larry Jetmore

Dr. Larry Jetmore, a retired captain of the Hartford (CT) PD, has authored five books in the field of criminal justice, including, Path of the Warrior. A former police academy and SWAT team commander, he earned his Ph.D. at Union University in Ohio, plus master’s, bachelor’s, and associate’s degrees in Connecticut. Dr. Jetmore is the director of the criminal justice program at Middlesex College in Middletown, CT and a full-time faculty member.