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Crime

Lawrence police cannot be trusted to investigate rapes of KU students, women say

 

Angela Garza agonized over what to wear to the police station the day she reported being raped.

The wrong choice of clothing could diminish her credibility, the KU student thought, or make an officer think she had been “asking for it.” She chose something nice — but not too nice.

Her attention to detail was wasted. The Lawrence police officer she met with still didn’t believe her when she said her ex-boyfriend raped her multiple times when they were still together.

“He gave me his card, wrote down the case number and said since it was a relationship it means it was consensual,” Garza said.

“It felt like he was siding with this guy he’d never met.”

She and other women who reported sexual assaults in the past few years said they were brushed off, blamed or retraumatized by Lawrence police, who they trusted.

In one case, police decided in 90 minutes the woman was lying. In another, an officer allegedly suggested such assaults happen when women in college “experiment.” And in yet another instance, Lawrence police never arrested a University of Kansas guest lecturer accused of three sexual assaults in the city.

The most recent Kansas City Star investigation found two additional false report charges brought in the last two years against Lawrence women who reported rape or domestic violence. The charges were dropped after The Star asked about them.

The Star also found that Lawrence police aren’t as well-trained to handle such crimes as are police elsewhere in the region and don’t have an adult special victims unit. Their arrest rate in rapes is lower than the state average. Their investigations have led to more false report charges against women in recent years than in other cities.

Law enforcement in the county needs to change, Douglas County District Attorney Charles Branson acknowledged.

KU law professor Suzanne Valdez, who is also president of the University Senate and a special prosecutor in Wyandotte County, said she does not believe there is a safe place in Lawrence she can send students who come to her reporting assault.

“Women aren’t safe here,” Valdez said. “Police aren’t protecting women, the DA’s not protecting women.”

Lawrence police disagreed with those conclusions.

“The Lawrence Police Department takes alleged crimes of a sexual nature very seriously,” spokeswoman Amy Rhoads wrote in an email. The department, she wrote, “is firmly committed to assisting the survivors of sexual assault.”

Asked about Garza’s story, police said they would not discuss individual cases of sexual assault because of privacy concerns. But they said the relationship between victim and suspect is not a factor in deciding if a rape occurred.

As an attorney, Valdez said she suggests students go to the police. But she also tells them to expect the worst treatment.

“You don’t expect anyone to be supportive. Don’t expect anyone to believe you because that’s not what’s going to happen.”

The Star generally does not name possible victims of sexual assault without their permission. Some women, including Garza, agreed to be named in this story.

When Angela Garza, a University of Kansas alum, went to the Lawrence police to report being repeatedly raped, an officer told her she wasn’t raped because she was in a relationship with the perpetrator. JILL TOYOSHIBA JTOYOSHIBA@KCSTAR.COM

Limited training requirements

Garza, the KU student, said she told her boyfriend “no.” But he kept pushing, sometimes injuring her while she froze, unable to fight back.

It happened again and again, throughout the fall of 2016.

“I didn’t realize until months after it ended that I was raped,” Garza said. “It doesn’t matter that I was in a relationship. No means no.”

When police told her otherwise, Garza left the department angry but exhausted.

She sank into a deep depression and lost faith in the world around her, she said. The straight-A student saw her grades tank and she was kicked out of the University of Kansas Honors Program.

Relying on good friends and her own stubbornness, she graduated and moved to another state. She doubts that she would ever return to Lawrence.

Police never contacted her again, she said. She heard no updates on her case over two years. In October 2019 she called the department asking for a copy of her police report.

The officer she spoke with told her she couldn’t have it, she said.

He told Garza the case was still open, she said, so the report couldn’t be released.

But the officer also told her police never investigated the case because there was no probable cause that a rape had occurred, she said.

Lawrence police said the department would not discuss Garza’s case, but acknowledged that the first page of a police report is open to the public under Kansas law, though other parts of the record may be closed during an investigation.

The department, however, has no record of women being denied that first page, said Lawrence police Capt. Anthony Brixius.

Garza said police offered her no part of the record but said she could go to headquarters and look at it. By then, she lived out of state.

When she first made her report, Garza said, she expected a detective similar to what she had seen on TV, someone who believed her and was well-trained.

Hers is one of many cases that never led to an arrest.

Angela Garza, left, Hannah Strader and two unnamed women have said Lawrence police did not properly investigate the sexual assaults they reported. Illustration by Neil Nakahodo - The Kansas City Star

In 2018 Lawrence police made an arrest in 13.8% of reported rape cases, according to the Kansas Bureau of Investigation. That was almost 1% below the statewide average, but it was an improvement from the previous two years when fewer than 5% led to an arrest.

Nationwide, the Bureau of Justice Statistics found in a 2017 survey that about 20% of reported sexual assaults led to an arrest.

When Lawrence police officers go through the department’s in-house academy they receive basic training on sexual assault investigations based in part on standards set by a KU law enforcement training center.

That training material has not been updated since 2012. It explains some symptoms of trauma a survivor might experience but does not provide officers with clear guidelines regarding how to conduct an interview or investigation with that trauma in mind.

The officers also see a presentation from a local rape crisis center covering services they provide to survivors.

Rhoads, the police spokeswoman, wrote in an email that some officers have completed more specialized training in sexual assault investigations. One detective, she wrote, had more than 300 hours of training on sex crimes and related topics.

But police officials in an interview could not say how many officers received that additional training. Officers are required to undergo 40 hours of training each year. They are not required to seek out training on a specific topic unless they are part of a special unit. In contrast, KU campus police are required to get continuing training in sexual assault investigation yearly.

All three Lawrence police officers on the case of a woman charged this year with making a false report testified that they did not have special training.

Inadequate training could contribute to harmful practices and an increased perception that people lie about sexual assault, said Lisa Avalos, a law professor at Louisiana State University who works with End Violence Against Women International to develop training for law enforcement.

“Either the departments get it and they have put a sexual assault response team in place and they take each and every case seriously or they don’t get it and they do all kinds of things to victim blame and to try to discourage victims from coming forward because they don’t want to have to deal with it,” Avalos said.

“I think it’s probably fair to say departments are one or the other of those.”

The impact trauma has on a survivor’s brain can cause inconsistencies in the telling of their story, Avalos said. The result is a “mismatch” between typical police training and the needs of a victim.

Those tactics could cause a victim to recant their statement.

“It causes a victim to shut down,” Avalos said. “The minute that they feel that they are no longer in a place of physical or emotional safety the priority is to withdraw themselves from the situation that’s harming them.”

Lawrence police policy on sexual assault investigations calls for an officer with special training to perform follow-up interviews “whenever practicable.”

However, the department does not have officers specifically dedicated to these cases. The department has a unit of detectives assigned to crimes involving children and trained to handle child sex crimes, Rhoads wrote. A similar unit does not exist for adult victims of sex crimes.

In Douglas County since Jan. 1, 2018, about 48% of sex crimes charged were for offenses against children according to records obtained by The Star. A survey released in October revealed that 26% of undergraduate women at KU who participated in the national survey said they’d been sexually assaulted while they were at school.

The department said that even though some officers have more training in sexual assault they are not always the ones to respond because of case loads and timing.

“What does happen quite often is when detectives are working a case they realize that another investigator down the hall may have more experience in those types of investigations so he or she may go over and say, ‘Hey listen I need your help,’ ” police spokesman Patrick Compton said.

The department, Brixius and Compton said, has discussed creating a special victims unit but is limited in resources and the number of detectives on staff — 17. The department will ask for resources to start that special unit, Brixius said.

“I don’t want it to be portrayed that any shortage of people or resources is an excuse for anything,” Brixius said. “Especially with a crime of this nature we want to provide the best service that we possibly can.”

For women who say they received poor treatment from officers and attribute that to a lack of training, Brixius said: “That’s a matter of that person’s perception at a particular time and they may not know what that person has as far as training.”

 

Calls for change

The five women who spoke to The Star each said they reported sexual assaults to police because they believed it was the right thing to do.

Many said they wanted to prevent their assailant from hurting others.

One woman said she felt believed and supported immediately. Four said police mistreated them.

Some said police asked them to contact their assailant, or find them when detectives could not do so themselves.

Detectives allegedly made comments questioning the survivors’ stories or shaming them for the assault.

A KU undergrad who later transferred said she was “interrogated” for three hours by a detective who told her that assaults such as hers happen when women come to college and experiment sexually.

The detective, she said, insisted she turn over text messages and medical records so he could investigate her case but took seven months to contact her alleged assailant.

Hannah Strader, a former KU student who reported being sexually assaulted by a guest lecturer, said a detective was never assigned to her case. When she told police about other victims and a file of evidence on her computer they seemed uninterested, she said, and insisted that the other women needed to file a report.

Strader and the undergrad who transferred said police made it clear that they were too busy for their cases.

“To me it was that they didn’t want to do the work,” Strader said. “I was told that the reason it took so long for them to talk to him was that it was summer in Lawrence and they were down on officers.”

Like Garza, Strader said police refused to give her a copy of her police report.

Hannah Strader, 24, was a junior at the University of Kansas when Jai Nitz, 43, allegedly forcibly kissed her in 2017. She is one of three women who have made reports against Nitz with the Lawrence Police Department in the past year. Another woman reported a rape in Kansas City. Tammy Ljungblad tljungblad@kcstar.com

Of 103 rapes reported to Lawrence police from Jan. 1, 2018, to October 2019, 39 have been referred to prosecutors, according to records obtained by The Star. Of those, 17 so far have led to criminal charges. Not all of those were charged as rape. At least one of the women in those cases was later charged with making a false report.

That woman was a student of Valdez, the law professor.

For years, Valdez said, students have come to her for advice — including students who are sexually assaulted. What she’s seen in these stories, Valdez said, is a “complete disregard for women” by the police department.

“They really need training or they’re going to get sued,” she said.

Valdez said she has grown angry in recent months as she has seen women she felt were abandoned or attacked by the institutions that should protect them.

“I should also be able to say to a woman, go to police, go to (KU’s Title IX office), they’ll hear you, they’ll listen to you, they’ll figure this out. And I can’t do that anymore,” she said.

She says women in Lawrence want to feel safe. One of the first steps to making that happen, she said, is for those in power to speak up.

“We need someone in leadership to say enough is enough and we’re going to pay attention to this,” she said. “Someone with power needs to do that because it’s happening and no one feels safe.”

The Star sought comment from every member of the Lawrence City Commission in November, including then-Mayor Lisa Larsen, then-Vice Mayor Jennifer Ananda, commissioners-elect Brad Finkeldei and Courtney Shipley, and commissioner Stuart Boley.

Each declined to comment or did not respond to repeated requests for an interview about the police department.

Lawrence police said they can only take action on officers’ failings if someone makes a complaint in person, or by calling 785-832-7551. Those who do not want to contact police can call the Kansas Attorney General’s office at 785-296-2215.

“There may be a case where we’re in the wrong. There have been cases where we’re in the wrong and there may be a case where we’re in the right but certainly understanding why certain things happen helps everybody from both sides,” Compton said.

“We want to be able to investigate that for them and provide them with some sort of resolution.”

Illustration Neil Nakahodo

Other approaches

Eighty-five miles west of Lawrence, the director of the Riley County Police Department, Dennis Butler, took a phone call with The Star less than 24 hours after a reporter reached out.

The captain who leads the department’s detectives, Tim Hegarty, joined him on the line.

The department, which serves a population including more than 18,000 Kansas State University students, is hoping to increase the number of sexual assault reports they receive.

They have launched a program called “Your Option, Your Control.” Survivors can report in person, anonymously, or through a third party such as the department’s newly hired victim advocate coordinator.

Riley County Police Department Director Dennis Butler

The survivor can determine how far the investigation goes and stop it at any point. Police said they hope to break down barriers to reporting.

Hegarty said he hoped the department will identify the serial rapists he said he knows are in Riley County.

“Evidence tells us a small number of offenders commit a large number of crimes; the same would hold true for rape,” he said. “The more reports we get, the more names we get, the more times the same name will pop up and then to prosecute and incarcerate those serial offenders and by doing that reduce the number of rapes.”

The program is based on one started in Oregon called “You Have Options.” That program has been adopted by police in Columbia, home of the University of Missouri’s main campus.

Numerous police agencies in the Kansas City area have taken the End Violence Against Women International pledge to start sexual assault investigations by believing victims. They include the Johnson County Sheriff’s Office, Olathe Police Department, Lenexa Police Department, Overland Park Police Department, Mission Police Department and Leawood Police Department.

The Lawrence Police Department has not joined them. The department said in an email to The Star that officials were not aware of the program.

The Riley County Police Department also has not taken the pledge, but Butler said his department has focused on training their officers on trauma-informed interviewing.

The practice, Butler said, avoids victim blaming and creates a more comfortable situation for survivors. Officers are encouraged to start by saying “tell me what happened.”

All Riley County, officers have training in sexual assault investigations, Butler said. Three are designated as primary investigators for those cases. Those officers, Butler said, were scheduled to attend special training when they are designated to that specialty and have advanced training on the issue. In addition to those three detectives, Hegarty said, the department has one additional detective with advanced training and two with intermediary training.

While investigations with people who have been using alcohol and drugs are more difficult, Butler said, it should never impact the police work.

The main barriers those survivors face, he said, is in convincing a jury to take their case seriously. His department works to educate the public.

“No matter what kind of decision you make in your life it never justifies someone sexually assaulting you. Ever,” he said. “Trying to get that across to jurors can be difficult.”

When they’ve finished investigating, Butler said, “we would simply include all the facts and circumstances (on the rape report) we’ve learned and let the county attorney decide whether it’s a case he wants to file or not.

“And I can tell you if it’s a case he doesn’t want to file he’s not going to ask us to file a case for false report. I can absolutely guarantee you that with our county attorney.”

Douglas County District Attorney Charles Branson Office of the Douglas County District Attorney

BEHIND OUR REPORTING

How we did this story

The Star has published several stories this year describing problems women have had in reporting sexual assaults to the Lawrence Police Department. For this story, a reporter spoke again with several of those women and another who brought a new complaint. The reporter gathered police reports, training documents and policy records to show how Lawrence police compared with other agencies. The reporter interviewed Lawrence police officials, the local district attorney, police officials and prosecutors in area cities, as well as experts in sexual assault issues.

More false report accusations

Charles Branson, the Douglas County district attorney, says charging those who make false reports is a necessary step to avoid wrongful convictions.

“We know sometimes innocent people get convicted. And when we find instances of cases where we believe that somebody has made a false report that could have horrendous consequences to another party, we have to take those things very seriously,” Branson said.

But Tricia Bushnell, director of the Midwest Innocence Project, said very few wrongful convictions come from false reporting. They are more likely to come from inaccurate eyewitness accounts.

“If the concern is that a false report could lead to a false conviction, that’s just wrong,” she said.

In the last five weeks Branson has dropped three false report cases, including two that had not been previously reported. He said he feared a chilling effect on other survivors.

But he has pursued more of these cases recently than other prosecutors.

Johnson County District Attorney Steve Howe said his office has prosecuted two such cases in the last eight years. Riley County District Attorney Barry Wilkerson said in his 28 years working sex crimes cases in the county he could only recall two, possibly three, such cases and none in the last 20 years.

“I think that the charging of the potential false report cases is more telling of systemic problems in Lawrence,” said the law student Branson charged with false report. “I think for Douglas County to move forward with three that we know of within the last 18 months to two years is just really telling of a misunderstanding of sexual assault.”

She said that from her first interactions with police they lacked signs of understanding trauma.

“I felt from only a couple minutes into speaking with the detectives that the questions they were asking me felt very uncomfortable,” she said. “I felt like I was almost being treated as a suspect.”

That feeling was intensified after officers examined her texts and asked her if she was sure that she didn’t just regret the incident, she said.

Researchers at End Violence Against Women International say police should only suggest charging for false report after investigating what the survivor said happened.

Lawrence police never did that in the law student’s case.

A detective testified in court that he determined within 90 minutes that the woman was lying. Without reaching out to witnesses or seeking evidence of her assault, officers shifted the investigation to one of false report within a week.

Those false report cases should be pursued only in rare cases, said Kim Lonsway, research director at End Violence Against Women International. Even if a person has lied, the prosecutors must weigh whether charges are in the public interest.

“Often the motivation for those investigating and prosecuting these, it’s kind of an emotion-driven process rather than a resource question or is this good for the community question,” Lonsway said.

“Nobody likes being lied to or feeling that they’ve been lied to.”

 

Branson dropped one of his false report cases after widespread news coverage. He dropped two others after The Star inquired about them. Neither of those cases had been heard in open court.

The defense attorneys in those cases either declined to comment or could not be reached by The Star.

Branson said he considers the public interest in each case and re-evaluates them at every stage.

He said women should not fear reporting sexual assaults, but those cases are difficult. It can be hard to push past societal stigmas to convince a jury to convict, he said, especially in cases involving drugs and alcohol.

Enough evidence must exist for juries to look past their “negative connotations or biases,” Branson said.

“Regret’s a big issue for juries,” he said. “They’re going, well, you know maybe she’s upset now that this has occurred, but it was OK at the time. And so those are really hard concepts for juries to sort out and figure out. Juries don’t like these cases.”

Even in what seems to be the most clear-cut cases, Branson said, a jury may go the other way.

Lack of consistent results

Branson said some officers and prosecutors need better training and that there should be more uniformity to training across agencies.

The varying experiences of victims in Lawrence support that.

One KU student, whose alleged rapist was acquitted after a criminal process of more than three years, told The Star she felt supported and believed from the time she first spoke to Lawrence police.

Officers and prosecutors, she said, were sympathetic. They connected her to resources and assured her they’d pursue her case.

“I can only say for my experience that luckily the people I got to work with were really wonderful,” she said.

She said she was troubled to learn about the experiences of other women.

“My gut instinct is to believe women and I know the statistics that most of the time when women report that they’ve been raped they really have and so hearing that women like me have come forward and stated their experience and are met with resistance is heartbreaking and I would never want someone to go through that,” she said.

 

Branson said his office is developing new guidelines for handling sexually violent crimes in his office and local police departments.

“We also need to do a better job of trauma-informed training in our agencies,” he said.

The new guidelines, he said, will be based partly on a Kansas Bureau of Investigation model policy. It provides training practices and includes a section on common myths about sexual assault, instructions on how to perform a trauma-informed interview, and steps investigators should take when drugs and alcohol are involved in an assault.

Branson said he would like the guidelines completed by the beginning of the year but that training will take much longer.

Douglas County has a Sexual Assault Response Team intended to provide a multidisciplinary response to the issue. But it has not met since May. The team, which Branson says has existed for over 15 years, has been undergoing a transition in leadership, Rhoads, the Lawrence police spokeswoman, wrote in an email.

Some of the women who spoke to The Star were more optimistic than others that Branson will follow through.

One who had a more positive experience with law enforcement said she was confident in Branson’s office.

Others said they will need to see results.

The student who left KU after nearly a year of pushing law enforcement to take action said she has lost faith in the police and prosecutors in Lawrence.

“I think it’s good that they are trying to make future reforms, but that does not cancel out all the survivors that they have betrayed,” she said.

“I think that they owe survivors of assault in Lawrence justice.”

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