Carrie Hull became a police officer because she wanted to help people.
She never wrote the most tickets or made the most arrests. She patrolled the tree-lined streets of Ashland, Oregon, with an earnest heart, handling routine calls and domestic violence cases, wanting to help abused children and victims of sexual assault.
But when she started tackling sexual assault crimes as a detective for the Ashland police department in 2009, she was shocked by what she found. For the first time in her career, she didn’t feel like she was helping people.
“The Ashland police department wasn’t doing anything different than the vast majority of departments I have seen across the nation, which is sad,” Hull says. Victims were bullied by the system, treated like liars — or suspects — and dismissed quickly.
The system didn't help the people she set out to assist — it hurt them.
In a town with 20,000 residents and 7,000 college students, what happens in Ashland rarely has national implications. But how police departments, especially at universities, handle reports of sexual assault and rape has become a hot button issue in the wake of a slew of high-profile, controversial cases. There is perhaps no better example of that than a recent University of Virginia case reported on by Rolling Stone magazine, which turned out to be largely fabricated. The fallout from that report has generated a national conversation about the problem of sexual assault on college campuses and how best to deal with it.
This comes at a time when statistics say reports of sexual assault on campus is on the rise. Reports of sexual assault at public four-year institutions with at least 30,000 students have roughly doubled in six years, and a flood of complaints against post-secondary schools have inundated the Department of Education, where sexual violence investigations have doubled in less than a year. Meanwhile, a July 1 deadline looms for universities to conform to a 2013 mandate made by President Barack Obama that requires universities to be more accountable in handling cases of domestic violence, stalking and dating violence. It is unclear how much of the increase is due to victims feeling more comfortable reporting assaults; some experts say actual assaults are down even as reporting is up.
Because some of the most high-profile cases have fallen apart under scrutiny — like the case of a Columbia University student who carried around a mattress to protest the school’s response to her alleged assault — new questions have arisen about the best way for police to handle these cases.
Ashland has an answer.
In Ashland, Hull found that a majority of sexual assault survivors who contacted the police weren't satisfied with how their cases were handled. Rape victim advocates no longer trusted the department and the fracture was causing a breakdown in the legal process. So Hull decided to change the system, and not just for the Ashland police department. Her ideas have been implemented by Southern Oregon University, which calls the town home, and other police agencies across America.
Hull's program, called "You Have Options," places victims in control of what happens after they make a report and provides detectives with a uniform checklist of information to gather. It also requires that officers who work with victims are trained in interview techniques with those who have experienced trauma, rather than simply interrogating them.
"It's so common sense," Hull says. "It's just a human, decent way to treat people, and a smarter way to get information."
The complex campus rape problem
In another corner of the country a student might experience what Tucker Reed did when she reported her rape at the University of Southern California in 2012.
Despite evidence that included recorded confessions and statements from witnesses, the assistant district attorney for Los Angeles County declined to press charges. Juries don’t understand acquaintance rape, he told her. Her accused attacker was never arrested.
“You can have a survivor who has literally signed, sealed and delivered what should be an open-and-shut case to police and she will be told, bottom line, the state can’t bother with the expense,” says Reed, president and founder of the Student Coalition Against Rape, a non-profit organization. “When the ‘proper authorities’ don’t follow through on a report, it becomes all too easy for a school to take the same stance.”
About 14 percent of undergraduate women are reported to be victims of at least one sexual assault since entering college, according to the National Institute of Justice, yet schools still wrestle with the appropriate response. The list of postsecondary institutions with federal complaints filed against them for failing to properly respond to sexual assault allegations grew from 55 in May of last year to 105 in April. These schools now face Title IX investigations, which means they can lose their federal funding if they are found in violation of the statute — unless they remediate the problem.
Each investigation, which can include a review of the school’s policies regarding sexual assault, its response systems and examination of specific details of particular cases, usually takes years. When a school is found in violation of Title IX, as Harvard Law School was in 2014, the school must reach an agreement with the Department of Education to change the school's policies.
The Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights started investigating Harvard Law School in 2010 after a student complained that the school investigated a rape allegation for one year, barred the complainant from participating in an extended appeals process, then reversed its decision and dismissed the case instead. Now, among other changes, students at Harvard Law are no longer required to work with their alleged harasser to mediate the problem, and both the victim and alleged attacker are allowed to participate in the school’s appeals process.
At the conclusion of a Title IX investigation at Princeton University , the school agreed to give three students reimbursements for their tuition, school expenses and the cost of counseling to make amends for its handling of their rape cases. In all the cases, the Office for Civil Rights found that the university favored the rights of the accused in the review process, allowing appeals, character statements, advisers, witnesses and closing statements for the accused, but not for the victim. In one case, the school didn’t issue a no-contact order between the accused and the victim for a year after the report was made.
Men are more likely to commit sexual violence in communities where such actions go unpunished, according to a 2004 study by the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, so the way universities respond to rape allegations can play a part in the proliferation of rapes and assaults on campus, and influence how students respond.
"All sorts of people collude in this," says Tristan Bridges, a sociology professor at Brockport State University in New York. "It's not only administrators, but also students. When someone steps forward and makes that (rape) allegation, they get socially ostracized by their peers, so other students who have been sexually assaulted see that and think, 'Wow. I don't know if that is worth coming forward.'"
Reed’s own experience with law enforcement, university officialsat USC and the student body of her school took an emotional toll, to the point where she contemplated suicide, as she wrote for the online magazine xojane.com. That’s why she supports Hull’s You Have Options program, which bridges the divide between survivor, school and police and places the survivor's needs at the center.
"Southern Oregon University's successful approach seems to strongly suggest — if not outright prove — the need for a sympathetic coordination between campus and local law enforcement," Reed says. "Letting a survivor's (sexual assault) report fade into nothingness leaves predators — the serial offenders — on campus, where they've just learned that rape is a penalty-free crime."
Options are intuitive yet innovative
There are lots of ways Hull's boss could have responded when she told him his police department's handling of rape cases was an "epic failure."
But instead of giving her the axe, Police Chief Terry Holderness simply told his young detective to go fix it.
So she did.
As a detective, Hull was sent to training sessions to learn the proper use of forensics in murder investigations, like how to dig up buried bodies. But when it came to the kind of cases she was most likely to get assigned — sexual assault investigations — she wasn’t receiving any specialized training. So Hull sat down with victim’s advocates and contacted Russell Strand, chief of the Behavioral Sciences Education and Training Division at the U.S. Army Military Police School, to train herself.
Strand taught Hull his technique for interviewing trauma victims, which considers how the brain computes traumatic experiences and is more effective at gathering information, similar to child abuse cases. Today, that training is the basis of the You Have Options program.
"I started seeing all of these wonderful things we were doing for children and it just didn't make sense that (they) weren't offering the same level of service once someone turned 18," Hull said.
Using common interview techniques — asking who, what, when, where, and other details, as most police departments do — with sexual assault survivors is problematic, Hull says. Victims may not remember details clearly, or they may answer questions they don’t know the answers to (like the color of the bed sheets) just so they will be taken seriously. So she and all the officers who work in her program are trained to use Strand's technique called Forensic Experiential Trauma Interviews.
A more fundamental change, however, came as Hull shifted the department's attitude toward sexual assault cases. Rather than having the attitude that victims must come to the police first if they want help, Hull has forged a relationship with community advocates, held trainings for bar tenders, EMTs and first responders so that if they are contacted, they can provide correct information to victims on how the police department handles sexual assault cases. With that approach, and word of mouth, victims are more prepared and more likely to contact the police and take the next step.
“We actually care about people in our community being safe,” Hull says. “Statistics are misleading in criminal justice. Just because you have made 12 arrests doesn’t mean you have made your community any safer.”
So far, since the program began in 2013, reports of sexual assault to the Ashland police department are up 106 percent. Previously, the department received about 30 reports a year. In 2013, they had 63 cases, in 2014 they had 55.
Another difference with You Have Options is that victims can choose how to report their assault, including having another person make the report for them, which typically varies from precinct to precinct. In Hull's program, the victims can request that police not do anything other than document their report, while saving the evidence in case the victim changes their mind. Victims can have evidence collected without the pressure of pressing charges, report previous assaults, and stop the investigation at any time. As a result, even if the district attorney decides not to file charges, victims don’t regret talking to the police. They’re satisfied instead of victimized, Hull says.
As Hull developed the program, she also worked closely with Southern Oregon University in its efforts to establish a similar campus program called Campus Choice. So far, ten other police agencies across the country have begun implementing the You Have Options program.
“In our perfect world, Ashland isn’t exceptional,” Hull says. “In our perfect world, Ashland is the norm.”
Campus Choice leads the way
Angela Fleischer pays close attention to how sexual assault cases are handled at other universities, even if many of the lurid stories touch a nerve. As a confidential student advisor at SOU she's on the frontlines for fielding sexual assault reports.
“It does feel as though we are one of the few entities that is saying we have an answer,” Fleischer says. “I think people have a lot of questions and there aren’t many answers.”
At Southern Oregon University, Fleischer instituted the Campus Choice program in 2013. Through the program, the school allows Fleischer, a confidential advisor, to meet with students without requiring them to make an official report or even give their name.
Each month, a group of Title IX officers, confidential advisors, community partners and representatives from Campus Public Safety and university housing reviews how each complaint was handled. The group evaluates trends in reporting, analyzes overall campus safety and considers how the system can be improved. Other universities sometimes lack the clear designation of a coordinator assigned to handle sexual assault reports or a system to oversee the discipline process. In some cases, university employees are not trained to properly investigate allegations or they do not follow a plan for coordinating with local law enforcement.
At SOU, after instituting its new model, reports of rape doubled in 2014 and are on track to triple this year, Fleischer says. The school had as many reports in the first term of school this year as in the whole of last year — and the increase in reporting is a good thing. "It means they have faith in their administration," she says.
Encouraging a system where more students will report rape and sexual assault cases can be a scary move from an administrative perspective. In some cases, school leaders may worry higher numbers might damage the school's reputation or make a campus look more dangerous, but so far, that hasn’t been the case at SOU, Fleischer says.
“I didn’t set out to try and make a program that other people would follow and do, I just wanted to make it better here. And if it works here, I believe it can work other places,” Fleisher said. “I always go home at the end of the day feeling like I’ve helped somebody or contributed to some good in the world, and there is a lot to be said for that."