Commission believes potential data collecting discrepancy to blame.
By Taylor Bayly
Reports of rape to local law enforcement agencies decreased dramatically between 2017 and 2018, prompting an inquiry from Whatcom County’s Commission on Sexual Assault.
The Whatcom County Council approved the appointment of Emily O’Connor and Krista Touros to the Commission on Sexual and Domestic Violence during a council meeting on July 7. The commission has 28 members representing a range of stakeholders, from law enforcement agencies and prosecutors to health care providers and sexual assault prevention services.
The county’s annual data survey says that reports of rape to the Bellingham Police Department decreased 40.7%, from 59 incidents in 2017 to 35 reports in 2018. In Whatcom County, reported rapes decreased 36%. Survivors of sexual assault could be reporting less frequently, according to Whatcom County’s Commission on Sexual and Domestic Violence’s annual data report.
According to its website, the commission’s goal is to coordinate sexual assault and domestic violence prevention, monitor trends and raise community awareness.
“It may be partly a data collection problem,” said Susan Marks, the commission’s director. “The Bellingham Police Department started tracking some of the reports differently [which could] explain some of the decrease, but not the whole 40% decrease. The thing we are sure about is that the [incident of rape] is not decreasing in Whatcom County.”
There are multiple community-based organizations that help sexual assault victims in the county, such as Bellingham’s Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault Services (DVSAS), the Consultation and Sexual Assault Support office (CASAS) at Western and St. Joseph Hospital in Bellingham.
Marks, who has coordinated prevention and advocacy programs against sexual assault for over 15 years, noted that none of these organizations experienced decreases in requests for medical or sexual assault services throughout 2018.
Marks noted that only law enforcement agencies, such as the police department and the sheriff’s office, noticed a decrease in reports, and the trend is specific to Bellingham — Whatcom County has the only local law enforcement agencies in Washington that are reporting fewer assaults.
Lt. Claudia Murphy, public information officer for the Bellingham Police Department, said in an email that the report database at Bellingham Police Department does not reflect a 40% decrease. Instead, Murphy said, the introduction of a new category of classifying sexual assaults could have caused the apparent decrease that surfaced in the county’s annual report.
This new category, “sex crime investigations,” is reserved for cases of sexual assault where there is insufficent evidence, requiring further investigation, said Murphy.
“The record keeping (or the title of the cases) does seem to have an impact,” said Murphy in an email. “There [was] a distinct difference once Sex Crime Investigation was added as a category, as cases were not labeled rape unless there was sufficient evidence or information to show there was a rape.”
Using data provided by the Bellingham Police Department, reporters at The Western Front have concluded that when the new category went into effect in 2018, reports of rape dropped from 54 cases in 2017 to 37 cases — a 31% decrease.
Marks said that investigating the decrease in reports could lead to community messaging and data-tracking reforms.
Elizabeth Hart, the support services manager at DVSAS, noted several reasons why someone might seek out community-oriented services instead of law enforcement.
“We are very much in a place of not telling people what they should or shouldn’t do. A lot of times [people] are unsure if a crime has occurred,” Hart said. “There can be a lot of self blame around that. We live in a society where there is a lot of victim blaming.”
Murphy noted there are issues within the justice system that could make reporting to police especially difficult for survivors of sexual assault.
“There is a lack of faith that anything will be done, as rape is a very difficult case to prosecute,” said Murphy. “The suspect has most of the rights and the survivor is the one on the stand having to retell the horrific act to a judge and jury and the suffer the indignity of being cross examined by a defense attorney who will victim blame, shame and otherwise horrify our survivors.”
Within the first month that Washington state introduced social distancing policies, reports of sexual assault decreased. St. Joseph Hospital saw fewer Whatcom County residents request sexual assault services due to the influx of COVID-19 patients, Marks said.
Because women in lockdown are confined to the home for prolonged periods of time, incidents of domestic violence are expected to rise. Fear of contracting COVID-19 can discourage survivors from going to hospitals, and many community-based advocacy programs are forced to reduce hours or services due to the pandemic.
A press release from the United Nations Population Fund concluded that due to COVID-19, for every three months of lockdown, “15 million additional cases of gender-based violence are expected” globally.
“Sometimes you’re not sure exactly what happened when drugs or alcohol are involved,” Marks said. “That can make it a challenge to report to law enforcement. You can be afraid of retaliation. And there’s a lot of people who don’t want [the perpetrator] to go to jail.”
Rape goes largely unreported to local authorities, according to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN). Out of every 1,000 sexual assaults, 230 are reported to police, and only 4.6 reported cases result in the perpetrators going to jail.
“I think we will see a decrease in [the] 2020 data,” Marks said. “People are not reaching out as much during COVID, and it is entirely possible that these nationwide protests against law enforcement could lead to less people reporting to law enforcement. There’s also the question as to when the doors open. I could see there being a huge increase in requests for services in that time.”
Washington state law defines rape as “forcible sexual intercourse without the other person’s consent.” First- and second-degree rape are classified as class A felonies, punishable by a $50,000 fine and life in prison.