Richard Mankewich, Sergeant, Orange County Sheriff’s Office, Sex Offender Surveillance Squad, EVAWI, Advisory Board Member
The negative culture of sexual assault goes deep into this nation’s core. Just recently the flood gates have opened and victims from all walks of life are coming forward to disclose years of sexual abuse. This crime does not discriminate. Victims from all cultures, gender, religions, and economic backgrounds can be the target.
Yet being in law enforcement for the past 30 years and supervising a sex crimes unit since 2004, I personally witness the scrutiny and victim blaming that is associated with victims coming forward after years have gone by. Just turn on the news and you will hear, “Why did it take so long for her to come forward?” “Why did she keep going back to his place?” “Why wouldn’t she tell someone?” “WHY? WHY? WHY?” Isn’t it time for the “Why’s” to stop?
It is certainly easy to cast judgment from the sidelines when you or one of your family is not the victim of this horrific crime. The culture of victim blaming has gone on way too long and it’s time for change. With as few as one in five victims coming forward, sexual assault is a vastly underreported crime. So maybe we should stop asking the “Why” questions and focus on supporting victims.
Working over 14,000 sex crimes cases, I know that disclosure is a process. It is rare to have a victim come forward immediately after a sexual assault occurs. I also know there are hundreds of reasons why victims of sexual assault delay reporting. Fear of the suspect, fear of what their family will say, fear of not being believed, embarrassment, and shame are just a few reasons.
Whenever I teach sex crimes classes to law enforcement, I always ask if they would personally report - or if they would encourage someone they love to report- if they were a victim of sexual assault. I may get one or two raised hands, but the rest generally say they would not report. If the people who have sworn to protect the citizens they serve wouldn’t report a sexual assault, how can we judge everyone else who decides not to? I say it all the time - reporting and participating in the criminal justice process is not easy to do. So, for the one in five brave victims who do decide to come forward, let’s stop the “Why” questions and start by believing.
How do we change this negative culture? Family and friends are generally the first person a victim will disclose to, therefore each one of us must be the positive force that encourages and helps guide them through the process. Society must stop victim blaming and understand that everyone reacts differently to a traumatic event. Trauma can prevent a person from remembering every detail about an event, and the ability to recall those details in perfect sequence. Nevertheless, we must start by believing victims. This is how we create the calm and safe environment to begin piecing their memory together. This is the starting point for an investigation, and it is required to gather the most accurate information about the sexual assault. We must all demand that offenders are held accountable before they strike again and sexually assault someone else.
For my law enforcement “family,” I know that we want immediate clear and convincing evidence that a crime occurred. We want the television version of what a rape victim should look and act like. Trust me when I say critical mistakes will be made if you don’t understand what trauma looks like. If you want to change the culture and be successful at holding offenders accountable, here are the two things you need to do. START BY BELIEVING and then conduct a complete and thorough investigation. We are the last line of defense and sexual assault victims need us to do our job. All I ask is that you investigate these cases as if the victim is a member of my family because I would do it for yours.