FORT MYERS, Fla. – A continuing Call for Action investigation looked into how local law enforcement handles sexual assault investigations after one victim said she felt there needed to be “profound changes.”
The woman, who we chose to call Amy to protect her identity, said she was raped by someone she knew two years ago. Three days after the attack, Amy said she called the Lee County Sheriff’s Office to report the attack. She said that process was re-victimizing.
“It’s male dominated institution and it’s a very grey area. I feel there needs to be a different, very specific approach when you, when you talk to rape victims. It’s a very personal, very emotional and stressful time for that victim and they need to understand that,” she explained.
Dr. Laura Streyffeler, who has never met Amy but has worked with rape victims, said Amy is not alone.
“I’ve heard stories like that and the intimidation factor feeling like they’re either being bothered. More often than bothered, I hear that they’re being judged and not believed…I’ve heard sometimes they feel, in a different way, as victimized by the process as by the perpetrator,” Dr. Streyffeler said. “The idea that they’re feeling victimized by them puts a layer that they just don’t expect and a further feeling of hopelessness and helplessness because it’s the people that are supposed to be protecting them that they feel violated by.”
Call for Action Reporter Lindsey Sablan reached out to seven local law enforcement agencies to see how they investigate rape case including Charlotte, Collier and Lee county sheriff’s along with Cape Coral, Fort Myers, Naples and Punta Gorda police. Each agency responded to our questions, except the Lee County Sheriff’s Office.
The agencies said every officer or deputy receives basic training on how to handle these investigations including how to interview the victim, how to collect evidence and how to be empathetic. In the Cape Coral Standard Operating Procedure booklet it directs officers to “speak softly and guard against body language or facial expressions that could upset or alienat the victim.”
Also, all of the agencies who responded except Fort Myers police have some type of special investigations unit, which is in charge of investigating these crimes. In Collier County, that unit is called the Special Crimes Bureau.
Lt. Ken Becker has been with the department for nearly 30 years and now works in that unit. He said they are in the process of changing how detectives interview rape victims because that interview plays a huge role in the investigation.
“Basically it’s like a puzzle that’s all mixed up and you might get certain parts of that puzzle and other parts that we would think as law enforcement officers are important, that victim can’t fill that place in yet because they’re not ready.”
Lt. Becker said they used to interview the victim immediately after they called 911 either at the sheriff’s office or rape crisis center. Now, detectives are going to wait a few days and have the victim come in when he/she is ready. They are also bringing a couch into the interview room to make the setting as comfortable as possible for the victim.
“We’re brining the victim in here a couple days after the fact, so they’ve had time to compose their thoughts, get a good night’s sleep. They’re going to have a victim advocate right there with them so that they have someone they feel safe with and hopefully we’ll be able to get better interviews for them…which may make it easier for the State Attorney’s Office to prosecute some of these cases that they’re right on the edge with and they don’t think there’s enough. Maybe with this interview it will be enough to put it over the top to where they feel they can prosecute the case.”
In addition, the Collier County Sheriff’s Office has had a policy since 2003, which requires they send every rape kit to Florida Department of Law Enforcement’s state lab.
“We didn’t want to take a chance of the possibility of a serial rapist being out there in our community.”
Lt. Becker said recently they solved a sexual assault case thanks to the rape kit.
“We had a case here just recently in East Naples, where a lady was sexually abused, she did a sexual assault kit, had no idea who the perpetrator was. About a month, month a half later, we ended up arresting the individual on another case, a robbery and an attempted sexual battery. But once he was arrested on that, his DNA was collected and put into CODIS and just recently we were contacted that he was the suspect in that sexual assault a couple months,” Lt. Becker said. “Without that, she may have never had any closure. We would have never known who the individual was that sexually battered her, and she would have gone on her entire life not knowing if the guy was right around the corner.”
While the Lee County Sheriff’s Office has refused to respond to our questions, Sgt. Matt McDaniel was quoted in the News-Press saying, “when you get into the process of an investigation and the female withdraws…then we are not going to go forward with them [referring to testing sexual assault kits].” Recently, LCSO reported to FDLE it had 498 rape kits that were not tested. LCSO has since said it will send all of those kits off for testing, in batches of five.