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Brandon detective works to improve response to sexual assault cases



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January 16, 2013 - Studies estimate that at least 20 percent of American women have experienced a sexual assault. The number of sexual assaults that occur in this state and nationwide are difficult to determine, in large part because most victims do not report the horrific crimes they have endured.

"The vast majority (of sexual assaults) go unreported," said Herb Tanner, director of the Violence Against Women Project. "It's unique to each individual why they don't report— they may not report because they are ashamed, they blame themselves, they say, 'If only I hadn't done this, this wouldn't have happened.' The vast majority of these crimes are perpetrated by people known to the victims. They don't want to get the other person in trouble, they don't feel they will be believed, and the cost of reporting in terms of privacy and putting their life on trial instead of the perpetrator is not worth it. We would like to change this dynamic."

The Violence Against Women Project was founded in 1996 by the Prosecuting Attorneys Association of Michigan with a mission to "improve the justice system's response to domestic and sexual violence and stalking by providing multi-disciplinary training and technical assistance to increase implementation of best practices, enhance offender accountability, and empower victims."

Last July, Tanner and DeDe Ford, also a member of the PAAM, asked Oakland County Sheriff's Office Detective Dale Brown, of the Brandon substation, to help accomplish that mission in the "Jurisdictions of Excellence" program. Brown accepted a spot on the team, along with his OCSO colleagues, Lt. Wendy Reyes and Det. Jody Kendrick.

The "Jurisdictions of Excellence" program, funded by a federal grant, has been given a directive from the U.S. Department of Justice to develop a statewide model policy for investigation of sexual assaults. The project specifically is aimed at improving responses in the cities of Detroit, Flint, Pontiac and Saginaw.

The Oakland County Prosecutor's Office Special Victims Unit recommended that Brown be on the team to develop new policy regarding police investigation of sexual assaults.

"The Jurisdictions of Excellence program looks to departments who have a good response to sexual assaults so we can develop an across the board policy to help other departments have the same kind of response we do," said Brown. "Sexual assault cases are extremely unique. They can't be investigated like every other crime because of concerns that investigators and prosecutors could retraumatize the victim. To avoid that and still bring justice, we are looking to change the initial contact with police because that has a lot to do with the emotional outcome for the victim and legally for prosecution."

Brown explains the Jurisdictions of Excellence team hopes to minimize or eliminate traditional stereotypes of victims. In new training curriculum, for example, police officers will be instructed to avoid asking victims questions that make them feel they themselves are on trial—such as why they got into a car or went back into a house. Brown notes the misconception must also be overcome that the majority of rape cases are false.

"The truth is, the majority are assaults and are not falsely reported," he said.

The new curriculum being developed for training police officers in their response to sexual assault cases will ensure the blame for the crime lies with the person who committed the heinous act, not with the victim and will lead to more sensitive interviews with the victims.

"We know police officers who handle these cases day in and day out want to do the right thing," Tanner said. "We have also learned how assaults have a long-lasting impact on survivors and how it affects them when they talk about the trauma inflicted on them. A lot of things asked for in the investigations (previously) were hurtful. With this new training, we are empowering the survivor to tell her experience."

Tanner expects the curriculum to be finished within the next month and to be implemented in police departments in the four appointed cities by April.

"We hope for the victims that do come forward, it will make a difference for them in getting help for them to heal, and in getting a conviction of the perpetrator," said Tanner.

Susan covers Brandon Township and Ortonville
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