Oct. 24, 2016
Shame, guilt, fear and confusion — these emotions have traditionally been barriers for sexual assault survivors when it comes to reporting their assault to police.
However, a new program implemented by the VCU Police Department aims to remove those barriers and give survivors at VCU control over what information they provide to law enforcement.
Following a nearly 16-month implementation process by VCU Police Chief John Venuti and Detective Chelsey McCarty, the You Have Options Program was launched this fall.
Originating with the Ashland Police Department in Ashland, Oregon, YHOP currently has four participating law enforcement agencies in the U.S. VCU Police is the first campus law enforcement agency to participate.
When a survivor comes forward to VCU Police, they’re not questioned like criminal suspects and they’re not pressured into pursuing a criminal investigation.
Survivors are believed and supported and aren’t judged.
Instead, officers take the time to make sure survivors’ immediate health and psychological needs are met. Sexual assaults are traumatic experiences and officers use trauma-informed interview techniques to learn more about what happened.
“Survivors are believed and supported and aren’t judged,” McCarty said. “The goal for officers is to build a rapport with the survivor and treat each person with the dignity and respect they deserve.”
If a survivor wants to speak with a confidential advocate or counselor instead of police, they can do so. Officers educate each survivor on the reporting process and let them choose one of three reporting options:
- Information only
- Partial investigation
- Complete investigation
Only a complete investigation could result in criminal charges against a suspect, but all information provided by survivors can be useful to police.
Survivors can also file a report through an online portal and choose how they’d prefer to be contacted. Third-party reports from roommates, friends or relatives are accepted if a survivor does not want to come forward. Anonymous reports are also accepted.
YHOP has three main goals: to increase reporting by eliminating barriers, to increase the identification and prosecution of sexual offenders and to decrease sexual assault victimization. The program is in compliance with federal, state and local laws pertaining to sexual assault.
“You Have Options is survivor-centered and offender-focused,” Venuti said. “This means we help survivors get the help they need and we determine if there are serial perpetrators in our population.”
Ultimately, YHOP agencies want to ensure that the survivor and the criminal justice system obtain favorable outcomes.
As part of YHOP’s guidance on best practices, VCU Police took the additional step of designing two soft interview rooms for survivors in the department’s new headquarters at 224 E. Broad St. in Richmond.
The rooms are outfitted with couches and chairs, similar to living room furniture, to make the spaces less intimidating and more welcoming. The spaces are designed to encourage conversations with survivors and are distinctly separate from interrogation spaces for criminal suspects.
In the future, VCUPD will work with YHOP program coordinators to develop a database for the documentation of trends, and profiles, of serial sexual predators.
For now, police are ready to work with survivors at a pace they feel comfortable with.
“Sexual assaults are one of the hardest crimes to investigate, but we’ve formalized a lot of what we’ve been doing under the YHOP program,” Venuti said. “People ask how we measure the success of these investigations and since every survivor is different I have to tell them: We measure success one case at a time.”
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