#WhyIDidntReport is a sad, but necessary, rebuke to Trump

#WhyIDidntReport is a sad, but necessary, rebuke to Trump

The hashtag took off after Trump questioned Kavanaugh’s accuser.

President Donald Trump on Friday morning questioned Christine Blasey Ford’s sexual assault allegations against Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh. And in the process, he suggested that if Ford had been telling the truth, she should have told her parents or gone to the police.

In response, actor Alyssa Milano and others have launched the hashtag #WhyIDidntReport. Milano shared her own story, writing, “I was sexually assaulted twice. Once when I was a teenager. I never filed a police report and it took me 30 years to tell me parents.”

Hey, @realDonaldTrump, Listen the fuck up.

I was sexually assaulted twice. Once when I was a teenager. I never filed a police report and it took me 30 years to tell me parents.

If any survivor of sexual assault would like to add to this please do so in the replies. #MeToo https://t.co/n0Aymv3vCi

— Alyssa Milano (@Alyssa_Milano) September 21, 2018

There are many responses to Milano’s tweet and many other stories being shared via the hashtag. I’m not embedding many of those tweets to protect non-public figures’ privacy.

Some people noted that they didn’t trust the police to take the accusations seriously. Others worried about the potential consequences with their family and friends, especially in instances where one of those family members or friends was the perpetrator. More wrote about the shame or agony they felt about the assault, which led them to stay quiet about the tragedy instead of opening up about it and potentially being forced to relive it. Many worried about the potential disruption that reporting the assault could have on their lives.

I was 17. Raped by a friend. I was confused. In denial. Afraid. His parents were richer & better connected than my parents. He was a "good" student. Ppl liked him. The only friend I told--responded w: "He wld never do that." I didn't think anyone would help me. #WhyIDidntReport https://t.co/YbCuIMg07M

— Abigail Hauslohner (@ahauslohner) September 21, 2018

I did report. I went to the hospital and the SVU in Brooklyn and told them what happened to me.

They told me what I described was a rape. I was starting law school in 3 weeks so I decided not to press charges. Biggest mistake of my life. #WhyIDidntReport

— Zerlina Maxwell (@ZerlinaMaxwell) September 21, 2018

He was the nephew of my father’s girlfriend at the time & was older & stronger than me. It started when I was 7 & I thought he’d hurt me more & that nobody would believe me. It took 4 years to break the silence. He was abusing other kids too, I later found out. #WhyIDidntReport

— deray (@deray) September 21, 2018

Others also shared the dire consequences they faced when they did report a sexual assault, from family and friends questioning them to losing jobs when they accused co-workers or bosses. Instead of getting justice, these people’s lives got worse because they opened up.

The stories are universally harrowing, coming from mostly women but also some men who were raped and sexually assaulted.

They should not, however, be very surprising to anyone who closely follows this issue. This is the norm in America: Despite all the progress we often attribute to ourselves, the reality is we still live in a country where the great majority of people don’t feel comfortable reporting sexual assault and rape — including to the police, the very people who are supposed to ensure our public safety.

#WhyIDidntReport is about educating the president of this reality.

It’s the norm to not report sexual assault

It’s true: Most sexual assaults go unreported to the police. And when these incidents are reported to the police, charges are most frequently not filed.

Part of this is the result of sexual assault victims fearing the repercussions of speaking out — the shaming, stigma, and retaliation, not to mention the difficulty of potentially reliving a traumatic event over and over in the course of an investigation. Fears of these repercussions often stop sexual assault victims from going to the police in the first place.

We’ve seen how this can work with the Kavanaugh accusations, with pundits questioning whether any of the claims are true, trolls doxxing and threatening Ford, others digging into Ford’s personal history and credibility, and politicians, particularly on the Republican side, resisting the idea of getting the FBI more involved prior to a Senate hearing over the matter.

But much of the problem is the fact that even when sexual assault survivors do come forward, police don’t appear to pursue these claims as vigorously as they would other crimes.

The Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network (RAINN), drawing on federal surveys and data, concluded that for every 1,000 rapes, 310 people reported the crime to police and just six perpetrators were incarcerated.

A chart showing that for every 1,000 rapes, only six lead to incarceration.

The result: Most people accused of sexual assault and rape in the US go free — without any kind of criminal investigation or punishment.

By comparison, for every 1,000 assault and battery crimes, 627 crimes were reported and 33 perpetrators were locked up.

A chart showing that for every 1,000 assault and battery crimes, 33 lead to incarceration.

Neither number is particularly encouraging for those seeking justice. But the incarceration rate for rape is still less than one-fifth of what it is for assault and battery. That’s despite the fact that rape is a more serious crime than assault and battery, so you should expect it to lead to more incarceration, not less.

Part of the problem is the vicious cycle this creates: Sexual assault survivors think that the police won’t investigate their accusations very seriously, so they’re skeptical of coming forward — and opening themselves up to all sorts of scrutiny — when they might not even get justice.

Ford, who accused Kavanaugh of groping her and trying to undress her while covering her mouth at a prep school party in the 1980s, expressed a similar sentiment to the Washington Post regarding Kavanaugh and whether Congress would take the allegations against him seriously: “Why suffer through the annihilation if it’s not going to matter?”

But if sexual assault survivors don’t report their cases to police or other officials, it’s obviously going to be much more difficult, if not impossible, for the government to do anything about the crimes.

It’s also true, though, that the criminal justice system simply seems to give much less attention to sexual assault than other crimes. Consider the data above: Out of 310 rapes reported to police, 57 led to arrest — a rate of about 18 percent. Meanwhile, out of 627 assault and battery crimes reported to police, 255, or nearly 41 percent, led to arrest — more than double the rate for rapes.

As best as we can tell, this is not because the majority of rape accusations are frivolous. According to the best research, 2 to 8 percent of accusations are false (although much of this research is now old).

Instead, this seems to be a matter of resources and culture. It’s only in recent decades that police have dedicated more officers and money to sexual assault cases — in part because of laws such as the federal Violence Against Women Act. And on a cultural level, police departments and officers are part of the same broader society that is only now taking allegations of rape, sexual assault, and sexual harassment more seriously with the rise of the #MeToo movement.

The reality, though, is that law enforcement agencies still often fail to follow up on sexual assault accusations, as unfair and unjust as that is.

To prevent more crime, police should do better

One surprising thing in the data is that police are very unlikely to arrest people for all kinds of crime — not just rape but assault and battery too.

The poor crime-solving rate is true even for murder: In the US, the murder clearance rate, which measures how often a murder results in an arrest, is typically around 60 percent. It’s even lower for minority communities, according to a Washington Post investigation.

Meanwhile, fewer than half of violent crimes in the US are reported, and fewer than half of those are cleared by police, according to a Pew Research Center report. And a little more than one-third of property crimes are reported, while fewer than one-fifth of those are cleared.

This fosters what criminal justice scholars call “legal cynicism.” When crimes go unpunished, people are more likely to think that the government — and particularly the police and criminal justice system — aren’t taking such acts very seriously. And that makes people distrust the police and justice system.

That not only makes people less likely to report crime — perpetuating the problem of few crimes going reported — but it might lead to even more crime. For one, if criminals are more likely to think they can get away with the acts, they’re more likely to commit them.

But there’s another piece to this too: If people don’t feel like police will protect them, they may be more likely to take the law into their own hands.

Consider a hypothetical murder that goes unsolved. If you believe that someone shot and killed a family member or friend and may try to go after you next, and police aren’t going to do anything about it, then you might be more likely to try to go after the shooter on your own to stop them.

Journalist Jill Leovy documented this phenomenon, with a focus on black communities, in her award-winning book Ghettoside (which, really, you should read). As she put it, “Take a bunch of teenage boys from the whitest, safest suburb in America and plunk them down in a place where their friends are murdered and they are constantly attacked and threatened. Signal that no one cares, and fail to solve murders. Limit their options for escape. Then see what happens.”

Police can do better. A 2017 study by criminologist Anthony Braga looked at the Boston Police Department’s efforts to increase the murder clearance rate by dedicating more resources and technology to solving such killings.

The study found that Boston police raised the murder clearance rate from 47.1 percent before the changes (2007 through 2011) to 56.9 percent during the changes (2012 through 2014). In contrast, the national clearance rate remained stable during these time periods, while the rate for other Massachusetts police agencies actually declined. While the study couldn’t definitively link Boston’s improvement to the specific strategies the city’s police used, the research indicates that improvement really is possible, one way or another.

And that suggests that police are generally doing much less than they could to investigate and solve the most serious of crimes. So victims frequently decide it’s better to not report the crimes at all.