Editor’s Note: Names of sexual assault victims have been changed in this story, to protect their privacy.
Haley woke up early one morning in June 2014. She had been out with a few friends at a bar in Ashland, Ore., the night before, and she felt safest going home with them rather than walking home alone.
“It turns out,” she said, “the creeper that I had to be afraid of was in my circle of friends.”
She woke up disoriented. She felt someone behind her with his arms wrapped around her, running his hands all over her and pulling at her clothes, even though she’d fallen asleep alone on a friend’s couch.
“I started, you know, moving to get off the couch, and he grabbed me and started trying to take off my clothes,” she says.
Eventually, she did wrestle her way off the couch and leave the house.
Immediately afterward, she was stunned that someone she considered a friend would try to take advantage of her while she slept. It took days until she was ready to tell anyone besides her mom and a close friend.
That’s a commonality among sexual assault cases.
“It is incredibly rare for somebody to experience a sexual assault and then the first thing that they’re doing is deciding that they’re going to report that to some authority. It’s just — it’s not realistic,” says Det. Carrie Hull of the Ashland Police Department.
‘You Have Options’
In 2009, Hull began looking for a way to change how police departments interacted with sexual violence survivors.
She saw specific problems: many victims who initially reported a sexual assault would stop participating in the police investigation and often the information the police did collect was not effective for ultimately developing a case.
And those problems extend far beyond Ashland. The Justice Department estimates that only 35 percent of rape or sexual assault victims report those crimes to the police.
When Haley was ready to report what had happened to her, Hull had assembled a program to help.
In 2013, the detective launched a program called “You Have Options” at the Ashland P.D.
After speaking with victim advocates and sexual assault survivors about their experiences with law enforcement, Hull identified three main concerns that kept victims from reporting or from continuing to participate in an investigation: confidentiality, fear of disbelief, and delayed initial reporting.
The goal, Hull says, was to make sure victims who report sexual assault crimes to the police are not re-traumatized by their interactions with law enforcement.
Results have exceeded expectations. Hull says she would have been happy to see even a 4 percent increase in sexual assault reporting. Instead, in the first year alone, Hull says, Ashland saw a 106 percent increase.
She’s traveling the country pitching the program to other departments. So far, three other law enforcement agencies have signed on — Garfield County Sheriff’s Office in Washington, Brighton Police Department in Colorado, and Virginia Commonwealth University Police Department in Richmond.
Brighton’s Department saw the number of victims who stopped participating in an investigation after making an initial report decline by half, Hull said. Further, Hull says that after speaking with hundreds of survivors who have gone through the program, only one has expressed regret about coming forward with information on an assault.
Departments that participate in You Have Options receive training to better understand the impact of reporting on survivors.
‘I shared everything’
You Have Options uses 20 elements as part of its reporting process and it allows victims the opportunity to report crimes anonymously.
“We encourage anonymous reporting of drug offenses all the time,” Hull says. “Now that does not mean in any way that someone is labeled as a suspect when we don’t have corroboration that a crime has occurred. It does mean that we have more information that could lead to that corroboration at a later date.”
This could be especially helpful in the case of repeat offenders. If one victim files an anonymous report, then a subsequent victim’s case may be stronger because law enforcement has more intelligence on the alleged perpetrator.
Later in the same summer Haley was assaulted, Christine also filed a report in Ashland. She had been violently sexually assaulted by a long-time boyfriend, but wasn’t sure whether to tell police.
Twenty years prior, she had tried to report an assault to law enforcement. She says, “The detective basically just ran me through the mill. And he told me that, ‘You know, I’m just going to treat you like they’ll treat you in court. And they’re going to blame you and make you feel like you instigated this, like you’re the one that’s at fault.’ ”
But this time she talked to an officer while she was at the hospital, and he explained the new program.
He said she “could have a say and control over the situation as far as whether charges would be pressed,” and he apologized for the way law enforcement had handled her situation decades ago, Christine recalled. “So from that I felt that I could trust him, and I shared what happened. I shared everything.”
Law enforcement was legally obligated to investigate and press domestic violence charges in Christine’s case, but she still had a choice in whether she also wanted to press sexual assault charges. After participating in the investigation, she chose to do that. The road through the criminal justice system was a difficult one. Eventually her attacker pled guilty. He has been in prison for more than a year.
‘The burden …rests on us’
In Haley’s case, she was unsure whether she wanted to open a full investigation. She was facing animosity from her friend group for speaking out about the attack; many defended the perpetrator. They blamed her for drinking.
She said over the following months, she learned that her assailant had assaulted a number of other women, so she decided to press charges.
“That’s four months of me needing time to kind of navigate my way through social turmoil and deal with my own trauma,” she says. “And just even gather what had happened to me.”
She encouraged two of her friends who were assaulted by her attacker to file reports too. One did so anonymously, and one also opened a full investigation.
The assailant was arrested in February 2015, and later pled guilty to assaulting both of the women who filed reports.
The program is still developing. Around the country, 10 agencies are actively working to implement the program and numerous others across nine states are in earlier stages of training.
Some officers and attorneys Hull has talked to are concerned that when police give victims the option not to press charges, they place other people at risk of future victimization by the same perpetrator.
“What we believe,” Hull says, “is that the burden for future victimization doesn’t rest on the shoulders of those who have had previous victimization.
“The burden to prevent victimization rests on us as professionals in this system.”