We Deserve Police Who Believe Victims

It happened to me again last week: a police officer participating in an online discussion I was part of insisted that most rape charges are false. In his work, he said, most of them are efforts to cover up infidelity or parents who discover that their teenagers are having sex and want to punish the other child.

It’s hard to overstate how discouraging these claims, especially by police officers, are. We have pretty solid data about the number of false reports (2-8%, but that number includes cases of mistaken identity, in which a person has been raped but misidentifies the perpetrator; so the number of cases in which a women deliberately lies is on the lower end of that figure). This makes false claims of rape much less likely than some other kinds of crime, such as auto theft. And, despite what my online conversation partner claimed, the assaults most likely to be made up (of the very small number that are) don’t involve people who know each other but claims of rape by a stranger. Indeed, the more personally difficult addressing an accusation of rape is likely to be, the less likely it is to be false.

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Above, a rape kit. If officers don’t think that rape happens, will they show up and do the best job possible of investigating?

We can repeat that all day long, but when police officers–the people who, women are told, we should call when we’re harmed–respond with disbelief, it doesn’t matter.

Take, Officer John Shipman of Jonesboro, Arkansas–where my university, Arkansas State University, is located. Shipman recently argued on his personal Facebook page that 80% of claims are rape are false. This is a man tasked with arriving to the scene of a rape and investigating it. Every case he investigated is now in doubt. Every future case (after he comes back from his 30 day, unpaid suspension, plus additional sexual assault training)will be in doubt. If you live in Jonesboro, Arkansas, and are a victim of sexual assault and Officer Shipman shows up, please ask for another officer to be sent.

Shipman will have to undergo additional sexual assault training, which seems to me to be similar to allowing a student who failed his assignments to pass the class on extra credit. Extra training won’t help if the first one didn’t help. To add insult to injury, the police department called the comment “insensitive”–as if the problem is that the women of Jonesboro, Arkansas, are just a little testy, maybe too emotional, rather than that this claim is outright inaccurate.

Arkansas, by the way, is the most sexist state in the US. Shipman alone isn’t the reason why, but he’s a symptom of a larger problem.

The idea that police officers feel that they can determine if a crime happened is particularly galling, given that this seems to violate the principle of “innocent until proven guilty” that so many anti-victim advocates say they believe. Whether a crime occurred isn’t up to an officer to determine, and when they do that, they are robbing victims of the opportunity for justice.


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