Investigating Rape Crimes, Part 1: Guidelines for first responders
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
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.
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:
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
In addition to following normal procedures in protecting primary and secondary crime scenes, one of the first responders (preferably a female officer) 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.
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.
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