We have the right to a legal system that works to protect us from harm. If you report a sexual assault to the police or prosecutors, they have a responsibility to take you seriously.
Reporting Sexual Assault to the Police: Know Your Rights
If you report a sexual assault to the police, the police have a responsibility to do at least the following:
Take your case seriously. You’re reporting a violent crime, not a stolen candy bar. Officers and detectives should treat your case like an important matter, a possible opportunity to protect the public from a dangerous offender.
Conduct a skillful and respectful interview. Courtesy should be a given, along with an interview designed to get to the facts. The investigator should begin with open-ended questions, let you give your account in your own words, and allow you to clarify things. Pointed questions are fine, but up-front hostility and disbelief are not. Repeatedly interrupting a survivor-witness, treating a survivor like a suspect, or engaging in victim-blaming, won’t lead to a good interview and won’t help get to the truth.
Document your statement correctly. Police reports are written under time pressure and often contain errors. If you’re offered the option to have your interview recorded, it’s likely in your interest to say yes, so it’s clear exactly what you said. If your interview is not recorded, you can ask for a copy of the complaint report and any other reports that document your statements. Then you can go over those reports promptly and carefully, bring any errors to the investigator’s attention in writing, and keep a copy of your corrections.
Investigate surrounding evidence thoroughly and swiftly. A thorough investigation is indispensable. Police should interview witnesses, secure surveillance videos and social media posts, pull phone and text records, locate cab drivers, question suspects, search for additional victims, submit physical evidence for testing, and more. Timeliness is important so that videos aren’t erased, witness recollections don’t dim, social media accounts aren’t taken down. Survivors can play an important role in preserving evidence, e.g., screenshotting relevant texts or social media posts, or asking a health care provider, a friend, or a police investigator to photograph injuries (if there are any; often there aren’t).
Interview before-and-after witnesses. There’s almost never a third person in the room during a sexual assault, but there may well be witnesses to what happened shortly before and after – and those witnesses can be crucial. The police should interview them promptly.
Prepare you for a controlled phone call – and give you a choice. The police may ask you to have a recorded conversation with the offender. This can be a valuable investigative tool. But police shouldn’t bully you into this nerve-wracking prospect, and they should help you prepare beforehand. If they advise you to “act really friendly,” or “flirt with him so you get him talking,” that’s terrible advice. If you agree to make a call like this, you don’t have to be confrontational, but forced friendliness won’t help anything. Be calm and serious.
Return your calls and keep you informed. It’s a basic courtesy and the least that’s owed to you.
Assess your case without reliance on rape myths. At some point the police will probably make a determination about whether to refer your case to prosecutors and / or whether to make an arrest. If police are framing your case as a “weak” case in a way that reflects misconceptions about sexual assault, you may find that you have to advocate for yourself or recruit an advocate, from an advocacy organization or elsewhere.
Reporting Sexual Assault to Prosecutors: Know What to Expect
It’s an important distinction to note that when you report sexual violence to law enforcement, you’re considered a witness to the State’s case, not a party to your own case. What this means is that the prosecutors represent the State – not you. You are a witness for the case which the State brings against your assailant.
If you report a sexual assault to prosecutors, here’s what you need to know:
Prosecutors have absolute discretion to decide whether to charge a case. Some exercise this power well, and some don’t. There are brave prosecutors willing to take challenging sex crime cases to trial if they believe the survivor and are convinced of the defendant’s guilt. But there are too many prosecutors who only want to charge a sex crime if it’s an “easy win.” That often means a case that conforms to rape myths, even though most real sexual assaults don’t.
The prosecutor makes the decision, but you advocating for your case may make a difference. In a criminal proceeding, you’re considered a witness to the state’s case, not a party to your own case. But if your prosecutor takes that wrongheaded approach of only wanting to charge easy-to-win cases, it can sometimes help to advocate for yourself. You might consider asking to speak to a supervisor, bringing in an advocate or an attorney, or even mobilizing supporters from the community. In some communities, survivors aren’t stopping at advocating for their own cases; they’re banding together with other survivors to demand change, to hold district attorneys accountable for failing to prosecute sexual assault, and to make sexual assault an election issue in campaigns for D.A.
Prosecutors sometimes say “we don’t have enough evidence to prove our case” when they really mean, “we’re afraid we’ll lose at trial.” Fear of losing is not a good reason not to prosecute.
Your testimony is evidence. As a survivor, you’re also a witness. If you recall being sexually assaulted by the defendant, that by itself is legally sufficient evidence to bring a case—though prosecutors can and should still determine whether they believe the defendant is guilty, after a thorough investigation. If you were sexually assaulted while unconscious and you have no recollection of the assault, a different set of challenges exists (see our points on “what to do if you’re drugged and sexually assaulted). But if you have evidence that a sexual act happened (like DNA or an admission from the defendant), and evidence that you were incapacitated at the time (like a witness, a video, or an admission from the defendant), then likely there is legally sufficient evidence to proceed with a case.
Your instincts are valid. If you’ve been told that your case can’t be prosecuted, and the explanation doesn’t make sense to you, maybe it doesn’t make sense period.
Mental health support is crucial. Sexual assault is a violent crime that can seriously injure a survivor’s emotional and psychological well being. If criminal justice officials don’t respond appropriately, the survivor’s trauma can be intensified. Professional help in the form of therapy or counseling has been shown to improve long-term recovery outcomes.
Your case is worth fighting for. By advocating for your own case to be investigated and handled well, you’re standing by yourself, and maybe protecting someone else. Good for you.
Women’s Justice NOW may be able to help.
Our staff includes a former sex crimes prosecutor who can assess your case and discuss with you your options for how to proceed. Learn more about our Criminal Justice Navigators Project. Call 212-627-9895 to learn more.
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Sexual Assault is any unwanted, forced, or coerced sexual act. It includes inappropriate sexual contact or fondling, acquaintance rape, date rape, stranger rape, child sexual abuse, and incest. Sexual assault is not about sex, it is a crime of violence where sex is used as a weapon, motivated by the desire to have power and control over the victim.