City Auditor Lavonne Griffin-Valade released her report yesterday detailing the results of her recent audit of the City of Portland’s progress in improving its response to sexual assault cases. The report was an update of her 2007 report which was highly critical of the City and in particular, the Portland Police Bureau, in their handling of sexual assault victims. The February 2014 report found The City and PPB made significant progress since the last audit toward achieving a victim-centered approach in assisting sexual assault victims. In fact, the audit notes that the Bureau and community response to the 2007 audit was “impressive and immediate.” This response and the audit itself, is testimony to the City’s commitment to implementing a victim-centered approach to sexual assault. This is important to achieve the goal of keeping victims involved in the investigative and prosecutorial process in an effort to improve the odds a case will be successfully prosecuted and a perpetrator will be taken off the streets. Auditors examined 49 detective case files and listened to 54 9-1-1 calls, finding substantial progress has been made. One SANE nurse with extensive work experience said the difference between 2007 and today is an improvement like “night and day.”

The most impressive changes include:

  • Multnomah County now has 27 SANE nurses, which is more than any other county in Oregon (up from 13 in 2007).
  • PPB hired two Victim Services Specialists to provide social support to victims and changed their policy to require detectives to contact victims within 48 hours of case assignment and conduct in-person interviews with victims at a location convenient to the victim.
  • At least five major hospitals in the area are now ready to process Sexual Assault Forensic Examination (SAFE) kits (up from one in 2007).
  • PPB changed their policy to require contact with a victim within 48 hours of case assignment.
  • PPB revised their policy to specifically state, “the Sex Crimes Unit employs a Victim Centered approach when investigating sexual assaults. The mental and physical well-being of the victim should be the priority…”

A number of news agencies chose to cherry-pick the negative findings of the report, most of them merely following the lead of the Oregonian. While the report did find that mistakes were made and that there is room for further improvement, unlike the 2007 audit, the bulk of the report and its overall tone was positive. The takeaway should not be that there were cases that fell through the cracks, because that will always be true when investigating sexual assault. Sexual assaults are the most under reported of all serious crimes according to the U.S. Department of Justice. The victims who do report still are often reluctant to proceed and sometimes change their mind after they do report. That is why a victim-centered approach to sexual assault investigations is so important. The takeaway from this audit is that the City and PPB have started a shift in their thinking and their response when it comes to sexual assault. It is a positive change and one we should encourage and welcome rather than point out where it has failed. Auditor Lavonne Griffin-Valade seems to understand that approach and where the report found problems she made recommendations as to how to address them. Police Chief Reese and Mayor Hales responded by concurring with the recommendations and detailing their plans for implementing them.

As the report recognized, a victim-centered response recognizes that victims must feel they are believed and trust the system will work for them, or they will not participate in the system. Indeed, victims often choose not to report crimes in the first place because they fear not being believed. The victim-centered approach recognizes the victim is the center of the investigation, as in the majority of sexual assaults the only witness to the assault is the victim. The investigation starts with the premise that victims are the most important part of the investigation and their cooperation is necessary throughout the process to ensure successful prosecutions. Having said that, the supervising sergeant of the Sex Crimes Unit told the auditor that out of respect for a victim’s well-being, SCU staff do not try to persuade a reluctant victim to participate in an investigation; and that is key to a successful victim-centered approach to sexual assault.