The number of sexual assault cases exploded in Detroit as the pandemic deepened, and Detroiters should expect to see an increase in sexual assault crime stats in upcoming years, police said – but that’s part of their plan. The Detroit Police Department wants to lower the number of rapes in the city over time, but first it needs more survivors of sexual assault to come forward.
Chief James White said at a press conference this month that, in 2021, there were 795 reported incidents of sexual assault, an 18 percent uptick from a year earlier. However, White said 2020 was such an “anomaly” of a year that the department had to look at 2018 and 2019 to fully understand the change.
“There wasn’t the opportunity for our victims to report crime,” White said during the press conference. “We had schools closed, and we had social gatherings that were limited. … We want to make sure that each victim gets the justice that they’re entitled to and that they should have.”
In 2018 and 2019, there were 988 and 954 reported cases of sexual assault in the city, respectively. But Rudy Harper, the deputy chief of media relations for DPD, said there was a change in how rapes were reported in November 2017, which he says contributed to the increase.
According to Harper, before the change, Law Enforcement Notifications (LEN) — a third-party report in which mandatory reporters notify law enforcement of suspected sexual assault — reports weren’t classified as sexual assaults. After the change, however, LEN reports were included.
In Detroit, sexual assault is more prevalant than homicides. In contrast, the number of homicides and nonfatal shootings decreased last year in the city. There were 309 homicides and 1,065 nonfatal shootings in 2021, compared to 323 homicides and 1,170 nonfatal shootings in 2020.
Police are encouraging victims to come forward
The department and its Special Victims Unit (SVU) are also redoubling their efforts to get sexual assault survivors to come forward and report the crime, police officials said.
Capt. Kimberly Blackwell of the SVU said the effort to get people to report sexual abuse is in large part about educating people.
“It’s about getting the word out, talking to folks, children, parents, our communities, educating them on sexual assault and what is appropriate and what is not,” Blackwell said. “I think that that’s going to go a long way.”
Harper said in an email to BridgeDetroit that the effort is putting an emphasis on public education, which includes outreach to schools and community partners, and to devoting additional resources to the SVU.
Harper said there are more specifics to that plan that the department has not yet been made public. But, he said, luckily for the department, “education doesn’t cost.”
“Our experts have a wealth of knowledge and experience,” he said in an email. “Our training academy conducts a thorough class specifically on sexual assault, and education continues throughout the year. Additionally, we provide resource information on our social media platforms.”
Blackwell said 80 percent of the sex offenders that DPD investigates are repeat sex offenders.
“So training and educating people can go a long way in getting them to report things they see and know are wrong,” she said.
According to a 2015 study from the Bureau of Justice Statistics, about 310 of every 1,000 sexual assaults are reported to police, meaning roughly two-thirds of sexual assaults that occur go unreported.
Benita Robinson is the director of crisis services and education at the Avalon Healing Center, a Detroit nonprofit that provides care to survivors of sexual assault. The Avalon Center is responsible for collecting all the forensic evidence for rape kits in Wayne County, and works with DPD and other law enforcement agencies.
Robinson said there are some hurdles for DPD getting more people to report instances of sexual assault. One of them is resources.
“There’s so many cases coming in that they don’t have the manpower to accommodate every survivor in a timely manner,” Robinson said.
Robinson said many of the survivors brave enough to come forward can be upset when no one is held accountable immediately in a process that can take months, or sometimes years.
“So, for some survivors, it’s like, well, what’s the point of going through all of this?” she said.
Law enforcement failed Detroit victims
Another hurdle, Robinson said, is the longstanding culture of survivors not being believed when they report crimes to the police. She said uniformed officers should get more training around trauma.
“Because the officers don’t usually have as much experience in trauma-informed interviewing, which is asking questions in a way that isn’t accusatory or victim-blaming, making the survivor feel the most comfortable,” she said.
Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy said police not believing or understanding how to work with sexual assault survivors has tangible consequences.
“One of the reasons those rape kits sat on the shelf for decades was because police didn’t take these rape cases seriously,” Worthy told BridgeDetroit. “And if you’re a victim of color, there is a big chance you’ll be taken less seriously than someone who is white.”
Worthy was instrumental in getting justice for thousands of women when police discovered 11,000 untested rape kits in a DPD warehouse in 2009.
Worthy said things have gotten much better in DPD and Wayne County since those kits were found and tested.
“We’ve started doing things specifically to make victims more comfortable with coming forward, and that includes the LGBT community, which sometimes has a distrust of law enforcement,” she said. “Sometimes, we even have people who don’t want to come forward at a police station or the Prosecutor’s Office, so we have them meet us at a neutral site.”
Worthy said even with every accommodation her office and law enforcement make, reporting an instance of sexual assault is never easy.
“Those sexual assault victims deserve our utmost respect for even coming forward because many of them do not for various reasons,” she said.