Portland's unenlightened handling of rape cases is exposed

Turns out the city's institutions get almost nothing right when dealing with sexual assault – from advising victims to investigating the crimes.
Turns out the city's institutions get almost nothing right when dealing with sexual assault – from advising victims to investigating the crimes.

It's a shock: Portland, a city with its national rep for tolerance, activism, and protection of civil rights turns out to have one of the worst rates at solving sexual-assault cases when compared to similar-size cities. The poor performance is quantified in a new report released by Portland City Auditor Gary Blackmer: "We found that the sexual assault response and investigative process as currently operating does not work well for victims, and may be a primary reason for low clearance rates" of cases," is the bottom line, according to the audit. The Portland Tribune sums it up in similarly blunt terms: An audit ... blames sloppy and lethargic detective work, a failure by hospitals to give special training to nurses, and a systemwide malaise for why this city solves but a fraction of the reported rapes that other U.S. cities do. The audit places Portland in 20th place out of 21 comparable cities. The Trib's Nick Budnick posted the most cogent local coverage advancing the report. He noted that problems start with calls to 911 when victims report assaults, and things go downhill from there. Dispatcher tapes reviewed in the audit showed that operators often failed to advise callers of simple steps needed to preserve evidence on their bodies, bedding, and clothing. Police detectives in the sex-crime bureau (not popular jobs, apparently) have been too slow in their follow-ups, according to audit numbers. Hospitals in the area have dropped the ball on training programs that could help everyone along the chain – nurses included – serve rape victims more effectively. A subsequent editorial in The Oregonian, "Portland shrugs at rape," put it best: "Rape victims who get treated more like they got their bikes stolen than their lives overturned." Is there any good news? Sort of. Dispatchers already have received updated training on handling assault calls, according to a letter from City Commissioner Randy Leonard that was attached to the audit, dated June 8. Finger-pointing by some hospitals as to who among them is responsibile for specialized care for sexual-assault victims obviously won't cut it any more. The Oregonian reports that Police Chief Rosie Sizer has said she's addressing some of the recommendations, particularly the issue of response time for moving a case from a responding officer to a detective. As with any audit or report that crunches numbers and blames the front-liners, this one needs to be viewed with a somewhat wider lens. As the O's editorial rightly notes: "To be sure, the Portland Police Bureau is only one partner among many." In other words, the audit splatters all the players in this circle. Now they need to do what rape-crisis counselors have been asking them to do for years: Make it easy, not difficult, for rape victims to come forward.


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