Policing and Prosecuting Sexual Assault Cases: Inside the Criminal Justice System (Boulder, Colorado: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2014)
Authors: Cassia Spohn and Katharine Tellis Reviewer: Amanda Goodson, Sam Houston State University
A Brief Overview
In Policing and Prosecuting Sexual Assault: Inside the Criminal Justice System, Cassia Spohn and Katharine Tellis provide a comprehensive analysis of how sexual assault cases within the city of Los Angeles are handled by police and prosecutors. Using a mixed methods approach, case reports and interviews of police officers and district attorneys were analyzed to gain a better understanding of the different variables that affect case outcomes. Interviews of sexual assault survivors revealed unique challenges that arose during the justice process and their own recommendations for professionals in the criminal justice system. To conclude the book, practices and policy recommendations were provided on ways to improve the handling of sexual assault cases.
Perspectives and attitudes that police officers and prosecutors held toward sexual assault victims were documented throughout the study. Cynical views often aligned with beliefs in high rates of false reporting and less favorable attitudes towards victims. Professionals who held favorable attitudes were passionate about working with sexual assault cases, and often emphasized the importance of being dedicated to survivors. The perspectives and attitudes that were held by justice officials often influenced how rapport was established with survivors, thus potentially affecting the different steps during each phase of the criminal justice process.
The researchers were particularly interested in the policies and practices that guided the decision making process of police officers and prosecutors. Within Los Angeles, police officers follow guidelines that are set forth by the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) and Uniform Crime Report (UCR) when classifying cases as unfounded, cleared, or pursued. Police officers often reported that the victim-offender relationship, the timely report of an assault, victim behavior at the time of the incident, victim cooperation, and the strength of the physical evidence were assessed when determining how to pursue an investigation and whether an arrest should be made. Cases that were deemed problematic, or “he said/she said” situations, were taken to the district attorney for a recommendation on how to proceed. District attorneys generally recommended that a case not be pursued due to lack of evidence to support the claim, which usually resulted in the case being cleared before an arrest was made.
District attorneys were interviewed to understand how prosecutorial decisions were made in sexual assault cases. Trial sufficiency standards, such as proof beyond a reasonable doubt and the likelihood of conviction at a jury trial, were most commonly reported as the set of standards used during the decision process. Prosecutors disclosed that cases which involved delayed reporting, a lack of corroboration, and alcohol or drug use at the time of incident were significant factors in cases that had been rejected. If the suspect was known to the victim, a case was more likely to be rejected if there was a lack of physical evidence or eyewitness testimony that could be used to corroborate the victim’s allegations. Once charges were filed against a perpetrator, if victims stopped cooperating, changed their story, or if exculpatory evidence was discovered then cases would generally result in a dismissal.
The book concluded with recommendations for the two police departments and the district attorney’s office. Both branches of the system need to participate in comprehensive trainings that highlight the unique dynamics and characteristics of sexual assault cases. In addition, the training should be ongoing throughout a professional’s career. Policies, practices, and expectations specific to sexual assault cases should be created within each branch and followed by criminal justice professionals. Finally, in order for sexual assault cases to be investigated and prosecuted properly, they must be taken seriously by police officers and prosecutors.
Contributions to the Field
Policing and Prosecuting Sexual Assault: Inside the Criminal Justice System provides many contributions to the field including valuable insight into the handling of sexual assault cases. First, this book offers a strong methodological approach to examining cases of sexual assault. Qualitative data was collected through three different avenues. Interviews were conducted with district attorneys and police officers from the Los Angeles Police Department and Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department. To account for neighborhood variation, at least one officer was included from each precinct. In addition, data was also gathered through interviews with victims who suffered sexual assault from an intimate partner. Quantitative data was collected through case reports on female victims of sexual assault between January 2005 to December 2009. In the end, 7,300 reports were used to measure case outcomes.
This study improves upon previous literature by providing qualitative data on the perceptions and attitudes that police officers and prosecutors hold towards victims of sexual assault. Misconceptions and stereotypical beliefs about rape and victims of sexual assault were often portrayed by various professionals within the field. Spohn and Tellis (2014) were able to demonstrate how negative attitudes towards victims could be tied to increased beliefs about false reporting, victim credibility, and victim cooperation. As unfavorable attitudes can potentially impact how a case is handled and how a victim is treated, scholars should continue to examine police and prosecutors’ perceptions of sexual assault victims.
In addition to demonstrating how closely prosecutors and police officers work together, the results elaborate on how the roles of each profession can overlap and influence decisions. For example, the decision to arrest a suspect is formally made by law enforcement, yet often influenced by a district attorney’s recommendation. Spohn and Tellis (2014) highlighted an important implication for basing an arrest on the recommendation from a prosecutor. District attorneys must have proof beyond a reasonable doubt for a jury conviction, but police only need probable cause for an arrest. Thus, many cases may be prematurely screened out of the justice process. The authors are able to show how this screening process can impact the rates of cases that are classified as unfounded, cleared, and pursued leading to inaccurate rates of case clearances. Additionally, Spohn and Tellis (2014) successfully argued that this is cause for concern because it not only provides inflated rates of clearance for the departments, but can skew data that is provided to national databases such as the Uniform Crime Report.
One of the key findings and recommendations of the study was the need for implementing comprehensive trainings that address dynamic factors involved with sexual assault cases. Some of the concerns of police officers and prosecutors can be addressed with trainings that focus on interviewing and working with sexual assault victims. For example, Spohn and Tellis (2014) reported that police and district attorneys often emphasized the need to have timely reporting of assaults. Trainings can provide information that may help officers and prosecutors understand why victims may choose to wait to report. Finally, trainings can address some of misconceptions and stereotypical attitudes that arise with sexual assault cases.
While the methodology of this study is very strong, the results are generated from data collected in a single urban city. Since Los Angeles is one of the largest cities in the nation, the organization of the police department and district attorney’s office may differ from other departments. Therefore, the policies and procedures that guide decisions of police and prosecutors are most likely different than a department located in a smaller city or town. While the findings of this study strengthen the literature on how police and prosecutors handle sexual assault cases, the results may not be generalizable to departments outside of Los Angeles.
Overall, Policing and Prosecuting Sexual Assault Cases: Inside the Criminal Justice System provides an excellent overview of how police and prosecutors make decisions regarding sexual assault cases. Using a mixed-methods approach, the researchers demonstrated how the decision making process affects the movement of cases throughout the justice process. In addition, qualitative data provided insight into different perceptions and attitudes held by criminal justice officials. Furthermore, practical recommendations on how to improve the handling of sexual assault cases were provided to police departments and the district attorney’s office. Overall, I would encourage all scholars and criminal justice professionals to read this book as it provides critical insight into the process of policing and prosecuting sexual assault cases.