There is an epic scene in the 1976 movie, Network, in which the character Howard Beale touches a nerve with viewers as he talks about the frustrations under which they live. Beale urged his viewers to do something about it – to get off of their sofas and go to the window and yell, “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore!” We know that this was only a movie. But the truth is that there are many things in our lives that raise our level of frustration to more than a boiling point. For me, one of these things is the way in which first responding officers are allowed to question victims of sexual assault.
“I just don’t understand why police officers can tell your child that they are lying about something like this.”
Not long ago, a nine year-old told her family that an acquaintance had fondled her and tried to rape her. She and other children had been left alone with the man whom she had to fight off because no one was around to help her, she told her family. There were no visible signs of an assault. But the family nevertheless called the Memphis Police Department.
Officers responded and began to question the child, but as the mother listened to the way the officers were gathering information, she could sense that they did not believe her daughter.
“He tried to put his hands into my pants and he was touching his self,” she told them. “Then he tried to lay on top of me, but I pushed him off. He tried to pull my pants down, but I was kicking and screaming and my brother woke up. And he stopped.”
Instead of consoling the child, one female officer suggested that the nine year-old had made the whole thing up.
“Were you about to get a whipping about something you did? Do you know that you can go to jail if we find out you are lying?”
The happy ending to this story is that the man was eventually convicted. In fact, he was found to have molested or attempted to molest other children in the family. The victim’s mother said victoriously, “Minister Sanford, we won because I never doubted my child. I just don’t understand why police officers can tell your child that they are lying about something like this. It’s not fair.”
As I talked with this mother, I could tell that the pain was still fresh in her mind, even though the case had been resolved and the perpetrator put behind bars.
I wish I could say that she was the only woman who has complained that police never seem to believe the victim.
Police treat victims like suspects
The frustration in me lies in the fact that police departments allow officers to challenge victims’ accounts of their sexual assaults — even before the investigation is completed.
The rationale for this police skepticism is that sometimes claimants are not telling the truth and an innocent person could be charged. But the reverse argument is that an innocent person reporting sexual violence is treated like a criminal suspect.
Why should a law enforcement officer have the power to act as a medium or psychic to determine whether someone is lying? When a member of law enforcement implies that he or she does not believe the story told by a nine year-old, it often causes the child to retract the statement. As a result, the perpetrator goes free. He or she is free to attack others. And here, law enforcement has lost an opportunity to prevent future crimes.
In a city where the population is largely African American and female, I have to join the voices of those who are ready to shout from the rooftops: Let’s stop blaming victims! Let’s take another look at how law enforcement investigates sex crimes! Let’s find another way to get at the truth than to humiliate and intimidate victims. A civilized society demands that we do better.
— By Rev. Elaine Y. Sanford, M.Div.
People for the Enforcement of Rape Laws is a program of the Mid-South Peace and Justice Center to monitor law enforcement responses to sexual violence. Our goal is to end the law enforcement and political practices that effectively decriminalize sexual violence. To this end, we connect victims with information about their rights and equip individuals with tools to advocate for themselves and others and advocate for fair criminal justice policies. We urge you to learn more about America’s hidden rape crisis, where it has been exposed, and why it matters. We invite you to take action and support our efforts to make sure law enforcement takes rape seriously.