Jun 2, 2022 - News

Stretched-thin cops failing to take reports from rape victims

Illustration of a police uniform standing with no person inside it.
Illustration: Brendan Lynch/Axios

Seattle police are failing to take rape and other sexual assault reports in a timely way — or sometimes, even at all — from victims seeking treatment from Harborview Medical Center, King County's top sexual assault prosecutor told Axios Wednesday.

What they're saying: "Sometimes, an officer won't take a report for hours and often they won't come out to take a report at all; they may only take a report over the phone," said senior deputy prosecutor Ben Santos, chair of the Special Assault Unit for the King County Prosecuting Attorney's Office.

  • Santos said he's been informed about the reporting problems directly by Harborview officials and social workers.
  • A Harborview spokesperson told Axios on Wednesday that a supervisor in charge of treating sexual assault victims was unavailable, and didn't respond further.

Why it matters: The delay in reporting has meant an unknown number of rape cases are falling by the wayside, as victims aren't able to report crimes or have second thoughts about reporting due to the lack of police follow-through, Santos said.

Driving the news: The new details from Santos came after The Seattle Times and KUOW jointly reported Wednesday that detective staffing within the Seattle Police Department's Sexual Assault and Child Abuse Unit has been stretched so thin, it stopped assigning new cases with adult victims.

  • The news report is based on an internal memo sent to interim police chief Adrian Diaz on April 11 by the unit's Sgt. Pamela St. John.
  • Detectives now prioritize only a fraction of cases involving children, or those involving adults where a suspect is in custody.

The big picture: The unit's depleted staffing is a symptom of the department's wider staffing troubles in recent years, with the agency down more than 300 officers compared to two years ago.

  • During that span, the department has shifted a larger portion of personnel to deal with more visible problems, including property crime and homeless encampment removals, per the Times/KUOW report.

The other side: Assistant police chief Deanna Nollette downplayed her sergeant's memo as a "gross oversimplification," telling the Times/KUOW that adult sexual assault cases are still being assigned.

  • SPD didn't immediately respond to Axios' request for comment specifically about Harborview.
  • Mayor Bruce Harrell's spokesperson told Axios Wednesday that officers in patrol or working to remove encampments cannot simply be moved into the unit, which requires special training.
  • Harrell's public safety initiatives, including directing Diaz to beef up patrols around "hot spots" for crime this year, have "absolutely not" diverted investigative resources from sex assault cases, the spokesperson added.

Reality check: Unit detectives at times have been redeployed from their regular assignments to work hot spot patrols, two department employees told Axios.

  • In general, "most detectives that worked on the hot spot emphasis were doing their normal work," a department spokesperson said in an email. "There was about a two-week period that each bureau sent two officers/detectives" to help with hot spot policing.

Still, before cases are ever assigned to the stretched-thin detectives, Santos said, the failure to take reports from victims at Harborview is happening in the patrol ranks.

  • "Unfortunately, we can't even do the bare minimum things now — like show up to take a report from someone who has the courage to come forward," he said.

ğŸ“ž The National Sexual Assault Hotline is available 24/7 via 1-800-656-4673 or online chat. Learn more at RAINN.org.

Go deeper: Axios Seattle's Hot Seat interview with the mayor.

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