When a survivor of sexual assault contacts law enforcement they often have an expectation that their case will be solved quickly and cleanly, much in the way television shows like Law & Order portray things. Such outcomes are a rarity, as explained by Auburn Police Department Detective Mark Walker. Once they receive a case, investigators have the laborious job of investigating, corroborating and working all aspects of the case within a constrictive legal system – all while remaining neutral and unbiased to both the survivor(s) and the suspect(s).
Reporting a Sexual Assault
After contacting police, the responding officer (most likely a patrol officer) will ensure the sexual assault survivor is in no immediate danger. Once no threat of danger is established, or the threat is removed, the officer will take a report. Commonly officers respond to hospitals, where survivors have just undergone the Sexual Assault Victim Exam. This report establishes the time and location of the assault and gathers necessary details about the incident. This report is then assigned to detectives for investigation.
When and if a suspect is arrested can vary. Walker explained that “the cases we deal with are as varied as the [survivors] that report it. If the responding officer feels there is probable cause to arrest at the time the report is generated, then they will make the arrest. If we as detectives review the case or during our investigation feel an arrest is necessary, we will make that arrest. Some cases are referred to prosecutors before a physical arrest is made but it is not the rule.”
The Investigation of a Sexual Assault
One of the most critical aspects of working a case, Walker said, is “…managing expectations. Coming forward after a sexual assault is a huge step for a survivor. They want to see the person arrested right away.” Walker continued that they must “explain [the suspect] will probably be released if it is not a strong enough case.” For Walker that is “victimizing the victim all over.”
In eight out of 10 rape cases, the victim knew the person who sexually assaulted them
In Washington State, the prosecution of sexual assault cases is dependent on when survivors first report. Assaults reported within the first year have a statute of limitations of 10 years, whereas assaults not reported within the first year have a limit of three years. Survivors who wish to report, but do not wish to provide their name, can make a blind report. The survivor will receive a case number and can follow up later, should they choose to pursue the report.
While blind reporting is available, should a survivor choose to report and then later inform detectives they no longer wish to have their case investigated, the case will still be investigated. Walker explained that once a report is made, police have an obligation to investigate with or without the involvement of the survivor. Once the case is turned over to the prosecutor, the prosecutor’s office will then decide how to proceed.
Walker shared that it is very common that survivors delay reporting. This delay can cause a loss of available evidence to collect in the investigation, such as video surveillance or physical evidence of the assault. In his experience, survivors have come forward after years – meaning they have moved from the house the assault originally occurred. This means the case lacks corroborative evidence and comes down to word vs. word.
It is natural to ask why one would delay in reporting a sexual assault. Walker explained that as a matter of the investigation they try to show why there was a time delay. For example, if the survivor kept a diary, did they write about the assault? Investigators will speak to friends, inquiring if the survivor confided in them and made any disclosure statements to them. They look for evidence of a timeline that this has weighed on the survivor.
Once the investigation is complete it is given to the prosecutor’s office. The prosecutor’s office will then determine if charges will be filed. Walker believes everyone deserves their day in court. He has carried that belief through his work with APD and ultimately sends every case to the Prosecutors.
Though uncommon, false reporting does occur. Walker stated that these cases are investigated and sent to the prosecutor as any other case would be. False allegations, he said, “are fairly glaring – from both victims and suspects.”
Working With Vulnerable Populations
According to Walker, it is more frequent that child rape and abuse are reported than adult sexual assault cases because, in the case of children, mandatory reporters remove the decision from survivors. Mandatory reporters, as per RCW 26.44.030 are required to report if they have “reasonable cause to believe that a child has suffered abuse or neglect.”
One in every seven victims of sexual assault is under the age of six
In Washington State mandatory reporters are: any “Medical practitioners, Nurses, Dentists, Social service counselors/therapists, Psychologists, Medical Examiners, Pharmacists, School personnel, Childcare providers, law enforcement officers, Juvenile probation officers, Corrections employees, DSHS employees, Placement and liaison specialists, Responsible living skills program staff, HOPE center staff, State family and children’s ombudsman, any volunteer in the ombudsman’s office, adults residing with child suspected to have been severely abused.”
When abuse of a minor is reported, the responding officer does not take details from the child. Officers will only speak with the parent or mandatory reporter present as children are highly susceptible to influence. To gather information from a minor, a forensic interview is performed by a trained Child Interview Specialist through the Prosecutor’s Office. This interview uses techniques that aide in the recall by the survivor. The interviewer allows the child to tell their story. As to not influence the information being given, they provide no reaction and do not interject. Detectives observe the interview as it takes place. The interview is also video recorded.
Many sexual assaults go unreported, for numerous reasons. Racial and cultural mistrust of law enforcement and the justice system often play a large part in a survivor’s decision to remain silent. A disproportionate number of the LGBTQ community are sexually assaulted, and in Walker’s experience are the most unlikely to report. Sexual assault is also prevalent within homeless communities but is rarely reported. According to Walker, “a lot of reports come from others, and then we have to track down that person.”
43% of survivors did not report because they thought that nothing could be done, 27% thought it was a private matter, 12% were afraid of the police response, and 12% felt it was not important enough to report.
Walker said that he understood why some survivors do not report. “They will have to go to court, in front of 12 strangers, the judge, the defendant and anyone who happens to be in court that day and talk about the worst thing that’s happened to them.” He recognized, though, that for some survivors “getting their day in court could be very healing and empowering.”
Walker believes there may be an increase in reporting with the spread of awareness brought on by the millennial generation. “[Millennials],” he said, “are more accepting, communicate more and are more supportive.” Because of this, he continued, “I’m not surprised by the #MeToo movement. Millennials hold older generations accountable.”
Preventing Secondary Trauma During an Investigation
Taking a dangerous person from society and getting the survivor resolution is what drives Walker to close cases. He shared that “[survivors] can be very demanding – and rightfully so. You answer more to them than the department.”
To maintain boundaries, Walker explained that it takes honest communication with the survivor and their family. Not getting emotionally attached or getting too personally involved helps to ensure the neutrality necessary to properly investigate the case. “They’re not coming to you because they want a buddy, they want a professional. They don’t want a shoulder to cry on.” Though they do also sometimes cry, he says, “they want an investigator and expect professionalism.”
Walker reflected that as a Detective he has seen many things that others could not handle. He knows though that he could not be, for example, a surgeon. Walker’s mind is built for police work. Being a Detective, he doesn’t allow his work life to infect his personal life.
Sharing a story of a law enforcement colleague not with APD, Walker explained the importance of maintaining this boundary. A Detective that worked in child pornography investigations would go home and envision his own children in the images he was investigating. This went on for 6 months without him saying anything. He finally did, when he became suicidal. Speaking up allowed him to get the help he needed.
If at any time Walker or any other member of APD’s force needed to talk about a case or tough call, there are several programs for first responders available through the state and county. Peer support is also always present. Supervisors’ doors are open, and a department psychiatrist is available. Walker shared that members of the department are “100% supportive – there is no stigma.”
Walker is one of four major crimes Detectives with APD that can be assigned to work a sexual assault case. The other three major crimes detectives are Buie Arneson, Francesca Nix, and Doug Faini. The department’s Domestic Violence Detectives, Charlene Hoch and Jon Postawa, investigate domestic sexual assaults. When the caseload is heavy, APD’s cold case Detectives, Josh Matt and Rob Jones, may also assist in investigations.
If you or someone you know has been sexually assaulted, contact the Auburn Police Department by calling 911 or 253-288-2121. Officers are available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year.
Detective Mark Walker has been with the Auburn Police Department since 2012. He was promoted to Detective in 2016. He has been in law enforcement since 2003, serving on the Huntersville, NC, and Durham, NC Police forces. Detective Walker served as Corporal in the United States Marine Corps and was a Sergeant in the United States Army Reserve until honorably separating in 2017.