last updated 1 June 2009
The police response to victims of sexual assault is an important aspect of the fight to end sexual assault. The police are typically the first people to officially respond to a claim of sexual assault. Unfortunately, according to the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women, victims are often faced with discriminatory attitudes toward women in general and in particular toward victims of violence against women. These attitudes are fueled by cultural norms that blame the victim as well as the patriarchal attitude that men have the right to dominate women. As a result, police protocols are imperative to ensure women are taken seriously and that police adequately investigate the crime. Without these, women will continue not reporting rapes and conviction rates in rape cases will be low. Effective police protocols are of the utmost importance for detaining and prosecuting perpetrators and for preventing future sexual assaults. Furthermore, it is important to coordinate police investigation with prosecutors, victim support groups and other agencies and individuals involved in the sexual assault case. In fact, the UN Special Rapporteur recommended programs that offer a “one stop center,” at which the victim will have the medical exams and police interviews, as the most effective at avoiding revictimization and successfully gathering evidence.
Sexual assault victims have significant support needs to deal with the trauma of rape that begin with the initial police interview. The police may approach a sexual assault victim with a problematic attitude. They may require the victim to convince them that they really were sexually assaulted. Also, many police are hesitant to investigate sexual assault because many victims, who initially report the rape to police, decline to press charges. This is frustrating to officers who have spent significant time and energy preparing a case. As a result, police can alienate the victim, an action that may induce the victim not to follow through with prosecution and may convince future victims not to report the crime in the first place. In the U.S., some states have developed laws that mandate police training for dealing with victims of sexual assault. From: Neal Miller, "Review of State Sexual Assault Laws," Institute for Law and Justice (Oct 1997).
Training programs are being utilized in other countries around the world including the United Kingdom. See: Beata Cybulska, "Sexual assault: key issues," Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, Vol. 100 (2007). (PDF, 4 pages) Efforts should be made to make police stations less threatening to victims of assault.
Police are also familiar with the difficulties associated with processing sexual assault cases, particularly rape. Thus, officers can feel that it is futile to investigate a case they know will not result in a conviction. Furthermore, police also make the initial decision as to whether a sexual assault actually occurred and by whom, whether the crime is investigated and a prosecutor notified.
In addition to the police’s response to the victim, the police are also responsible for collecting evidence. In sexual assault cases, all evidence is of particular importance as physical evidence may be the only avenue for conviction. If police officers have not been adequately trained in sexual assault evidence collection, it can result in evidence being missed or destroyed. The U.S. Department of Justice Office on Violence Against Women has developed a National Protocol for Sexual Assault Medical Forensic Examinations (PDF, 141 pages), which offers guidelines to help states and communities understand the complex issues associated with sexual assault and evidence collection and provides recommendations for developing local protocols. Canada has developed a sexual assault examination kit, which contains information on legal procedures, the medical examination, victim services and trial instructions, as well as receptacles for gathering physical evidence. Much of the evidence will be located on the victim’s person, on or in her body and clothes. The victim should be quickly transferred to a medical facility and monitored throughout the entire investigation to ensure that no medical evidence is lost. In order to ensure that the most physical evidence is collected, the police must work in concert with the examining physician to make sure the victim has given them as much information as possible. For example, it is important to determine whether the victim bathed after the assault, and if there was any prior sexual activity, as well as the obvious questions regarding the form of attack and the description of the attacker. In addition to appropriately identifying evidence, the police must also collect it in such a way that it is preserved and meaningful in trial. For more information on police protocol for collection of evidence, please visit The Art and Science of Criminal Investigation webpage. Also, see the recommendation on police action in sexual assault and domestic violence cases in the 2008 United Nations expert group report entitled “Good practices in legislation on violence against women". For the Russian version of the report recommendations, click here.
In the United States, the Violence Against Women Act of 1994 (PDF, 356 pages) authorized the STOP Violence Against Women Grant Program, which stands for services, training, officers and prosecutors. This program is the primary funding source for local/state programs designed to stop violence against women. The STOP program is aimed at establishing cooperation among all agencies involved in sexual assault cases with the ultimate goal of ending violence against women and providing victim services. The National Institute of Justice (NIJ) performed a STOP program evaluation (PDF, 133 pages) to determine the effectiveness of implementing STOP specifically with regard to the law enforcement and prosecution components. The NIJ noted several national trends among evaluated programs and provided recommendations for improvement. The NIJ found that many programs provided opportunities for training for new recruits, but were less effective in offering training to experienced law enforcement officers. Most of the available trainings were focused on domestic violence. The NIJ also found that the STOP program was successful in forging relationships between the police and justice system to enhance offender accountability. The STOP program was also effective at increasing accessibility to training programs for law enforcement officers.
The Kentucky Association of Sexual Assault Programs has developed recommendations (PDF, 22 pages) for official responses to sexual assault. Police protocols should require trainings that combat attitudes that condone violence against women as well as incorporate any sexual assault procedures into the culture of the police department. Police departments should regularly review sexual assault cases to ensure compliance with procedures. Further police protocols should provide for regular updates on sexual assault issues and legal briefings. Sexual assault procedures and policies should be regularly reviewed and updated.
See: "Form for Evaluating Police Response to Rape and Sexual Assault," Women's Justice Center.
In the CEE/FSU region, most states have only just begun a public dialogue on the issue of sexual assault and legislative reform. States are beginning to assess sexual assault legislation, and have not yet implemented laws and protocols for guiding police officers. However, in recent years a number of states have taken steps forward in improving police procedure. Albania, the Czech Republic, and Kazakhstan have introduced methodological guidelines for handling sexual assault cases, although these procedures are not yet mandatory. Other countries, such as Poland and Serbia, are experimenting with localized pilot programs using police protocols, and may eventually integrate them into their nationwide police forces. A few countries are in the process of implementing broad standard protocols into their police and legal systems. In 2005 Azerbaijan adopted a code of behavior for all police officials, which included a component on sensitivity to gender issues. Ukraine has adopted protocols on investigating and prosecuting domestic violence and sexual assault, although these protocols are not consistently applied in all cases.
Most states in the CEE/FSU region have no specialized department for rape investigations, nor are trainings on violence against women mandatory for police officers. A few state governments, such as Azerbaijan, Albania, and Ukraine have provided optional trainings for police officers on sexual assault, trafficking, and domestic violence. NGOs and other women’s rights groups provide additional optional trainings on violence against women in all regions of the CEE/FSU, but only a small percentage of police officials attend. Kazakhstan has taken a remarkably progressive approach by creating the Division on Protecting Women against Violence under the Ministry of Internal Affairs, a special department of 137 police officers to combat violence against women.
Robert R.J. Grispino, "The Art and Science of Criminal Investigation," Serological Evidence in Sexual Assault Investigations (October 1990).
"The Evaluation of the STOP Violence Against Women Grant Program: Law Enforcement and Prosecution Components," Institute for Law and Justice (15 June 2001). (PDF, 133 pages).
"A Resource Guide for Kentucky Communities," Kentucky Association of Sexual Assault Programs (2002). (PDF, 22 pages).
Neal Miller, "Review of State Sexual Assault Laws, 1998 Legislative Codes," Institute for Law and Justice (February 1990).
"Sexual Assault Response Team (SART) Guidelines," Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape (2002). (PDF, 35 pages).
L.A. Hargot, "The Sexual Assault Examination," Canadian Family Physician, (1985).
Beata Cybulska, "Sexual assault: key issues," Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, Vol. 100 (2007). (PDF, 4 pages).
"Report of the Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women, Its Causes and Consequences, Ms. Radhika Coomaraswamy," United Nations Economic and Social Council, 53rd Sess., U.N. Doc. E/CN.4/1997/47 (12 February 1997).
Biljana Brankovic, "Violence Against Women: Does the Government Care in Serbia?," Open Society Institute (2007). (PDF, 89 pages).
Aurela Bozo and Edlira Haxhiymeri, "Violence Against Women: Does the Government Care in Albania?," Open Society Institute (2007). (PDF, 75 pages).
Anna Drelikh, Alma Yessirkegenova, and Yuri Zaitsev, "Violence Against Women: Does the Government Care in Kazakhstan?," Open Society Institute (2007). (PDF, 65 pages).
Haylna Fedkovych, "Violence Against Women: Does the Government Care in Ukraine?," Open Society Institute (2007). (PDF, 79).
Ruhiyya Isayeva and Yuliya Gureyeva, "Violence Against Women: Does the Government Care in Azerbaijan?," Open Society Institute (2007). (PDF, 70 pages).
Agata Krakowka and Artur Czerwinski, "Violence Against Women: Does the Government Care in Poland?," Open Society Institute (2007). (PDF, 42 pages).
Mgr. Petra Ledvinková, Mgr. Dana Pokorná, and Marie Vavronová, "Violence Against Women: Does the Government Care in the Czech Republic?," Open Society Institute (2007). (PDF, 53 pages).
"Consideration of reports submitted by States parties under article 18 of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women: Azerbaijan," Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (8 Mar 2005).
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