Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 3711-12), NP8916 – NP8940.
This study explored women’s experiences when their sexual assault report was disbelieved by the police. The demonstrate that police officers must gain a deeper understanding of trauma and sensitive communication with survivors of sexual assault.
One in four women will experience sexual assault in their lifetime. Despite the high prevalence of sexual assault, it remains one of the most underreported crimes to law enforcement. Women cite numerous reasons for lack of reporting to police, including shame, not wanting to get in trouble, fear of disbelief from law enforcement, and the use of substances at the time of the assault (Spencer et al., 2017). Among women who do report their sexual assaults, a high percentage are deemed by police to be false or baseless and therefore coded as “unfounded” (Johnson, 2017). Unfounded differs from unsubstantiated in that unsubstantiated refers to a failure to prove that a sexual assault occurred, while unfounded claims essentially consider the report as a lie (Rotenberg, 2017).
Although less than 5% of sexual assaults are reported to law enforcement, one in five cases reported to police are deemed baseless (by police) and therefore coded as “unfounded.” Police officers are in a unique position to act as gatekeepers for justice in sexual assault cases, given their responsibility to investigate sexual assault reports. However, high rates of unfounded sexual assaults reveal that dismissing sexual violence has become common practice amongst the police.
Much of the research on unfounded sexual assault is based on police perceptions of the sexual assault, as indicated in police reports. Women’s perspectives about their experiences with police are not represented in research. This qualitative study explored women’s experiences when their sexual assault report was disbelieved by the police.
Data collection for this study included open-ended and semi-structured interviews with 23 sexual assault survivors. Interviews covered four areas including the sexual assault, the experience with the police, the experience of not being believed, and the impact on their health and well-being. Interviews were audio-recorded, transcribed, and entered into NVIVO (a research software) for analysis. Data were analyzed using Colaizzi’s analytic method (Colaizzi's,1978 method of data analysis is a rigorous and robust qualitative method of analyzing data) resulting in the identification of four themes, including, (a) vulnerability, (b) drug and alcohol use during the assault, (c) police insensitivity, and (d) police process. The women in this study who experienced a sexual assault and reported the assault to police were hopeful that police would help them and justice would be served. Instead, these women were faced with insensitivity, blaming questions, lack of investigation, and lack of follow-up from the police, all of which contributed to not being believed by the institutions designed to protect them.
The findings from this research demonstrate that police officers must gain a deeper understanding of trauma and sensitive communication with survivors of sexual assault.