Center for Problem-Oriented Policing

Responses to the Problem of Sexual Assault of Women by Strangers

Your analysis of your local problem should give you a better understanding of the factors contributing to it. Once you have analyzed your local problem and established a baseline for measuring effectiveness, you should consider possible responses to address the problem.

The following response strategies provide a foundation of ideas for addressing your particular problem. These strategies are drawn from a variety of research studies and police reports. Several of these strategies may apply to your community's problem. It is critical that you tailor responses to local circumstances, and that you can justify each response based on reliable analysis. In most cases, an effective strategy will involve implementing several different responses. Law enforcement responses alone rarely reduce or solve the problem.

Do not limit yourself to considering what police can do: carefully consider whether others in your community share responsibility for the problem and can help police better respond to it. In some cases, you may need to shift the responsibility of responding to those who can implement more-effective responses. (For more-detailed information on shifting and sharing responsibility, see Response Guide No. 3, Shifting and SharingResponsibility for Public Safety Problems.)

General Considerations for an Effective Response Strategy

† In recent years, improvements in investigative techniques, evidence collection, and forensics have significantly affected the ability to respond effectively to sexual assaults. While important, these innovations are covered elsewhere (e.g., Savino and Turvey 2005) and thus not discussed in this guide.

1. Implementing a multifaceted response. The crime analysis triangle presented earlier highlights the three critical factors needed for a sexual assault to occur (i.e., a motivated offender, a suitable victim, and a location lacking capable guardians). You will have a more effective sexual assault-prevention strategy when you simultaneously address multiple sides of this triangle rather than rely on responses that address only one part. Selecting several of the specific responses listed below will enhance your strategy's overall effectiveness.

2. Developing an interagency collaboration. An appropriate response to the crime of sexual assault will involve, at a minimum, criminal justice, medical, and social service agencies.†† Police officers investigate the facts and prosecutors try cases; medical professionals provide medical attention for physical injuries and collect forensic evidence; and social service agencies provide emotional and logistical support to victims. While no single agency can perform all of these functions, each agency depends on the others to do their jobs so that it can do its own. Several jurisdictions have formed formal collaborations with staff from these agencies. Called Sexual Assault Response Teams (SART) or Sexual Assault Response Centers (SARC), these collaborations provide a support system that reduces the burden and trauma on victims as they negotiate the criminal justice process.†††

†† The Office for Victims of Crime's manual on the development and operation of Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner (SANE) programs includes useful sections on multiagency sexual assault response teams (Ledray 1999). Further, the Memphis Police Department engaged in a multiagency project to reduce the incidence of sexual assault. Surveys of partners indicated that the project fostered collaboration, generated buy-in from non-law enforcement agencies, implemented new approaches, and generated additional funding to solve the problem (Coldren and Forde 2010).

††† The Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape developed guidelines for developing a SART. The guidelines focus on the development of formal protocols for interagency communication and emphasize treating victims with fairness, dignity, and respect throughout the process (see Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape 2002).

Cross-training is essential to a coordinated response.40 All stakeholders should be exposed to a core curriculum of the dynamics of sex offending, characteristics of offenders, needs of victims, specialized risk assessments for sex offenders, and core principles of evidence-based treatment.41 They must also gain the knowledge and skill to fulfill their specific responsibilities. Medical staff must recognize the evidentiary issues police and prosecutors face. Police and prosecutors must appreciate how badly the traumas affect the victims' emotional states and their ability to participate in the legal process. Victim advocates must understand the legal system so they can accurately respond to victims' questions about the process.

† Savino and Turvey's Rape Investigation Handbook provides excellent guidance to police officers in their duties as first responders and investigators of complex sexual assault cases (Savino and Turvey 2005).

Studies of SARTs and SARCs have found that paid, full-time staff provide higher-quality and prompter services than part-time staff or volunteers, who are usually less well trained, may not stay abreast of current research, and may not be as dependable.42 Further, with formal links between agencies, communities can gather better information on the size and scope of their sexual assault problem.††

†† San Diego County's SART studied the approximately 4,000 sexual assaults it handled between 1993 and 2001. Those involved may use data on victim characteristics and times and locations for assaults to develop specific response strategies, and use data on wait times for victims' services to enhance service quality (see County of San Diego Sexual Assault Response Team 2003).

Specific Responses To Reduce Sexual Assault of Women by Strangers

Victim-Oriented Responses

† Additional resources for working with victims are available from the Office on Violence Against Women (see www.ovw.usdoj.gov) and the National Center for Victims of Crime (see www.ncvc.org).

3. Supporting sexual assault victims. A victim's advocate from the police, prosecutor's office, and local rape crisis center can address victims' emotional needs. Many times, victims will work with advocates from all three of these agencies at different stages following the disclosure of the offense, investigation, and prosecution. Advocates escort the victim through the major stages of the criminal justice and medical response to the assault. Key duties include providing emotional support during police interviews, during medical exams, and anytime thereafter; explaining legal and medical procedures; outlining available options for medical treatment and police reporting; and answering victims' questions. With the victims' consent, advocates can act as a liaison with the various agencies and service providers.

Advocates' support of victims allows police and prosecutors to focus on investigating and prosecuting offenders. Advocates' work with victims is often long-term, spanning from the time of the assault through the entire criminal proceeding, and sometimes well after. Victims receive better services if they have a single dedicated advocate rather than transferring to different advocates as their cases progress.43 Finally, the advocate protects the victim's best interests by observing medical staff, police, and prosecutor's processes and behaviors to ensure they treat the victim with dignity and respect.44 Their support may make the process less stressful and more predictable, and thus may increase the likelihood that the victim will participate in the investigation and prosecution of the offender.††

†† The Memphis Strategic Approaches to Community Safety Initiatives (SACSI) program developed a multiagency initiative to reduce sexual assault. Believing that interventions designed to keep more cases in the pipeline toward arrest, prosecution, and sentencing would lead to a stronger deterrent effect and reduction in the rate of sexual assault, the program developed interventions to maintain victims' interest and desire to persist with prosecution. The Memphis Police Department altered its response procedures for sexual assault calls and improved the physical space for victim interviews in the Sex Crimes Unit (Coldren and Forde 2010).

4. Making forensic medical exams less burdensome. While collecting forensic evidence remains a crucial function of the team's medical component, historically, victims have had to endure long waits in hospital emergency rooms and then treatment by medical staff unfamiliar with the intricacies of sexual assault cases and the types of evidence police need to progress with the case.45 To counteract these problems, many jurisdictions developed Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner (SANE) programs staffed by nurses with special training in the technology of sexual-assault evidence collection and documentation and the emotional ramifications for victims.††† Regular meetings with members of the interagency collaboration can help SANE nurses to stay abreast of changing legal standards and feedback from advocates regarding victims' experiences with the forensic/medical process. With a 24-hour on-call program, SANE nurses relieve emergency room staff from these duties and shorten wait times for both victims and police. SANE nurses' specialized training and experience often results in higher-quality evidence and more-skillful court testimony.46 However, in some jurisdictions, people have criticized SANE nurses for being "too aligned with the victim," and thus they must remain impartial when providing assistance.47

††† The Office for Victims of Crime published a manual on the development and operation of SANE programs (Ledray 1999).

5. Improving police skill in interviewing victims. Encouraging victims to report sexual assaults requires efforts to prevent "secondary victimization," and you can do so by refining police interviewing skills with sexual assault victims. A positive first contact with police may also encourage victims to participate in the investigation and prosecution of the assault.

Most people find the amount of detail a police interview requires unusual, and they may find it particularly difficult when police ask them to recount a highly personal and distressing event such as a sexual assault. People react to trauma in different ways and have varying styles when informing others about their experience. Victims may be highly emotional, with their distress clearly evident, discussing the event in a trembling voice with occasional spells of crying. They may also be far more controlled and low-key, appearing to be numb or resigned. Importantly, the victim's presentation style conveys no information at all about the veracity of the allegation or how distressed they are by it.48 Thus, to collect the most useful and reliable information, police must be able to adapt their interviewing style to accommodate victims' diverse needs. Not only does skilled interviewing generate better information, but also quality initial contacts with police can help victims to recover from trauma.49

† Epstein and Langenbahn (1994), Lonsway and Welch (1999), Jordan (2001), Lessel and Kapila (2001), and Woods (2008) offer concrete guidance for interviewing sexual assault victims. They highlight the importance of clearly assuring victims that they believe them, being patient, giving victims choices about how to proceed and the time necessary to decide what to do, and taking time to explain questions and why they need to ask them.

Studies of police training programs have found that some police lack skill in reading victims' level of preparedness to answer questions; inform victims about the consequences of reporting (e.g., warning that the trial will be difficult) too soon; and structure the interview according to their desire to have the story told chronologically and efficiently, rather than according to victims' need to tell their story at their own pace.50

Videotaped role-play exercises, with actresses playing the part of victims, help police to develop interviewing skills across a broad spectrum of communication styles. Researchers have found training programs that rely on lecture and discussion, without opportunities for skill development and practice, to be less effective.51 Research shows that jurisdictions that provide specific training to police on handling sexual assault cases have more cases in which victims willingly participate in the criminal justice process and a greater proportion of cases that are prosecuted.52

6. Teaching women self-protection. Women who experience a completed rape have more severe emotional reactions than those who manage to avoid a rape.53 Several research studies have shown that immediate, active resistance (e.g., yelling, running away, fighting back) reduces the likelihood that an offender will complete a rape.54 Reporting this research finding is in no way intended to minimize the very serious emotional consequences of any type of sexual assault or to imply that assaults that do not involve penetration are not "real assaults." Instead, these research findings are presented to inform harm-reduction efforts in response to sexual assault.

Rape-avoidance training should provide information on the warning signs of sexual aggression and how strangers may select and approach potential victims.55 Resistance begins by quickly diagnosing the situation and acknowledging it as a potential sexual assault. From there, effective victim self-protective behaviors fall under three main categories:

  • forceful verbal resistance: using powerful language (e.g., screaming, yelling, threatening) to either scare off the offender or attract bystanders' attention;
  • nonforceful physical resistance: passive efforts to evade the attack, including pulling away, running away, or removing the offender's hands; and
  • forceful physical resistance: aggressive behavior against the offender, including hitting, kicking, biting, scratching, or using a weapon.56

If they choose to resist, victims should meet the attacker's level of force. As the offender approaches, yelling and fleeing may be sufficient. As the attack becomes more physical, victims may need to respond more forcefully. Self-defense programs should teach women a diverse set of strategies designed to achieve a certain effect (e.g., to create distance between the attacker and victim, to attract bystander attention) so they can choose what best fits the situation and their own comfort level.57

Nonforceful verbal resistance, such as trying to reason with the offender or begging, may not prevent rape completion because it may increase the offender's desire to appear and/or feel powerful and dominant.58

Self-defense training should not involve only skill development, but also should help women to mentally prepare for the unfortunate case of being attacked. Emphasizing resistance may cause victims to believe they must resist for the assault to be viewed as legitimate. Police should challenge this notion and encourage women to contemplate what they are prepared to do and the resistance level with which they are comfortable.59 Although research has shown that resistance decreases the likelihood that an offender will complete a rape, each situation is different. Some women may fear for their life and determine that not resisting is safest.

7. Offering safe transportation or escort services. Offering safe, legal transportation to women leaving bars and nightclubs, walking home from work, or leaving night classes can limit the opportunities available to motivated offenders. Many colleges and universities provide safe transportation during late-night hours, as do some cities during busy holiday seasons or special events. For this response to be effective, analysis must accurately identify high-risk times and locations. Police should also identify illegal operated services (e.g., gypsy cabs) they have linked to sexual assaults.††

†† A cruel irony in London's sexual assault problem was that illegal minicab drivers committed a significant proportion of sexual assaults, attacking about 18 women per month. Transport for London, the Metropolitan Police Service, and London's mayor raised public awareness of the problem, cracked down on illegal cabs, and provided safe late-night transportation in the area. Over four years, the number of sexual assaults of this type decreased by about 45 percent (Transport for London 2006).

The Anchorage (Alaska) Police Department developed a crime intervention unit to increase surveillance in places and at times men were most likely to sexually assault women. Police trained about 40 volunteers to recognize suspicious behaviors, to contact police, and to provide identifying information. Plainclothes officers patrolled hotspots and responded to information volunteers provided. Officers also developed rapport with prostitutes and collected information about sexually violent men in the area. Although the program experienced short-term success, its effectiveness was limited because the department routinely pulled assigned officers into situations that patrol should have handled. Police also suspected that potential offenders moved to other areas (Whitehead 2005; Demer 2005).

Offender-Oriented Responses

8. Detecting prowlers. Although many sexual assaults occur spontaneously, some offenders spend considerable time observing and assessing a specific location, waiting for a suitable victim to emerge.60 You can use police foot patrols, Neighborhood Watch, and other programs designed to increase the surveillance of risky areas to identify men who appear to be lingering in the area or whom people have often seen in the area and who have no apparent legitimate purpose there. The police should receive physical descriptions of these men so they can informally question them.Even if a suspect has fled the scene before police arrive, police should still interview the caller and neighbors and document the suspicious activity.

9. Encouraging involvement by community members. Community residents can help to prevent sexual assault in various ways. Reporting crimes in progress as quickly as possible to police enhances the likelihood that the police will identify and catch the perpetrator, and agreeing to participate as a witness will increase the likelihood of a successful prosecution. High levels of resident crime-prevention activity (i.e., increased guardianship) in a specific area may suggest to offenders that committing a crime would be too risky.61

10. Collaborating with probation and parole officers to identify suspects. Police often have only a physical description of the offender and information about his behavior or verbal interactions with the victim. Sharing this information with probation and parole officers can help police identify a suspect, given that there may be similarities to the offender's prior behavior.62 Subtle facts about the offense or offender may enable a probation or parole officer to associate the new crime with him.

The Bellevue (Wash.) Police Department uses trained volunteers to complete the state's standardized risk assessment form for all known sex offenders in the city. Once they complete the form, they meet with crime analysts to review and confirm the results. The volunteers' careful review of all case information ensures that crime analysts consider all details and accurately compile scores, which saves police, probation, and parole officers significant time. Since the department implemented the program, the city has noted an increase in the number of offenders classified as medium- and high-risk, likely due to the more thorough review of case records (International Association of Chiefs of Police 2007).

11. Using validated risk assessments to identify the supervision needs of known sex offenders in the community. You or those qualified should assess a known sex offender's risk of committing a subsequent sexual offense using an instrument designed and validated specifically to do so.63Parole and probation officers should subject those offenders classified as high-risk to intensive supervision, with police support, as discussed below. Police should have a lot of information about risk factors that can change rapidly and that signal a need for immediate attention, such as increased hostility, substance abuse, or the collapse of social supports.64

12. Developing case-management plans to reduce the risk individual offenders pose. Plans to contain the risks posed by known sex offenders are most effective in reducing recidivism when they include both surveillance activities and intensive long-term treatment. Depending on their unique risk behaviors and collateral issues (e.g., drug use), offenders should have specific terms of community supervision developed for them.

  • a. Monitoring offenders' activities. Police can contribute to the effort to supervise and monitor known sexual offenders released from prison or jail to the community. When probation and parole officers share information about individual offenders' risks, supervision conditions, treatment progress, employment status, etc., police can better detect questionable behaviors or violations of the conditions of supervision as they come across offenders during routine patrol or specific enforcement activities. You need formal interagency agreements to promote the exchange of information and to clearly delineate the team members' roles and responsibilities.

    In King County, Wash., the Seattle Police Department and Washington State Department of Corrections' community corrections officers share office space to promote the daily exchange of information about known sex offenders in the community. Police also conduct community education programs and enforce "no tolerance" for harassment or intimidation of sex offenders by community residents (Center for Sex Offender Management 2008).

    For example, most police agencies are responsible for regularly verifying and updating sex offender registry information. While no one has proved the effectiveness of sex offender registries in reducing recidivism, research has shown that registration requirements enhance police, probation, and patrol officers' surveillance efforts.65 Rather than simply ensuring the accuracy of an offender's address, police can use the opportunity to provide an additional field contact.66 Particularly if police know the offender's terms of supervision, they can assess apparent changes in his circumstances and survey other household members for indicators that the offender's risk of recidivism has increased. If police note specific warning signs of assaultive behavior (e.g., contacting potential victims on the internet, calling 900 numbers, viewing pornography, possessing items used to bind victims), they should contact the offender's probation or parole officer immediately. Although parole officers don't supervise some registered sex offenders, police can still use information in their registries to search for a suspect with particular personal characteristics or methods.

    Police can effectively monitor an offender's behavior by using Global Positioning Systems (GPS).67 Unlike electronic monitoring systems, which can indicate only whether the offender is at home, GPS can pinpoint an offender's location within 10 to 15 feet. Active systems provide an offender's real-time location and immediately alert supervision officers when an offender enters an area he's not allowed to. Passive systems download and store information about an offender's location but do not have active systems' immediate alert feature.

  • b. Providing evidence-based treatment to known sex offenders. Programs that focus on changing attitudes about women or the extent to which potential offenders hold false perceptions or distorted beliefs about sexual assault have not produced long-term attitude change.68 Further, while it is important for men to understand the impact of sexual assault on women, programs focused solely on victim empathy are ineffective.

    Therapists can reduce the risk of subsequent sexual offenses among known offenders with a set of interventions designed to change the thoughts and behaviors that predispose offenders to committing a sexual assault. Effective treatment programs focus on offenders' actual sexual behaviors, arousal, planning, and rationalizations rather than stress, substance abuse, or childhood injuries that may contribute to, but not cause, their offending behavior.69

    Through collateral contacts with police, probation, and parole officers, therapists should verify an offender's self-reported behavior and attitudes throughout treatment. Further, therapists can enhance surveillance efforts when they provide those in the criminal justice system with information about the offender's methods of operation and patterns of behavior that have historically preceded their assaults.70 You can then tailor the terms of supervision and surveillance plans to target these precursors so police can prevent new assaults.

  • c. Using lie detectors to inform case-management planning and execution. Using lie detectors can support efforts to manage known sex offenders in the community by eliciting complete information on offenders' current and historical risk factors. At the beginning of the supervision period, law enforcement staff can use lie detectors to compile a complete sexual behavior history, along with a detailed description of the types of victims and opportunities that have led to sexual assaults in the past.71 During the supervision period, staff can use lie detectors to verify the level of reported compliance with the terms of supervision or to investigate specific instances of noncompliance. To be most effective, police, probation, and parole officers, treatment providers, and lie detector examiners should work together to develop questions for individual offenders.72

Location-Oriented Responses

13. Limiting intoxication in public places. When other factors predisposing men to sexual violence exist, research has shown that high intoxication levels increase aggression among men.73 Further, women may also be less aware of their surroundings when drunk and thus less capable of fending off an attacker. In areas with an active night life, encouraging responsible beverage service among nightclub and bar owners may decrease the intoxication level of potential perpetrators and victims. (See Problem-Specific Guide No. 1, Assaults in and Around Bars, 2nd ed., for more information on implementing responses designed to decrease intoxication in public places).

14. Improving lighting. Sexual assaults tend to occur in isolated areas that have few opportunities for natural surveillance. Increasing the lighting in these areas could increase the risk of detection and intervention, causing the offender to consider the location too risky. Communities must be able to pinpoint the hotspots for sexual assaults for this response to be effective. See Response Guide No. 8, Improving Street Lighting To Reduce Crime in Residential Areas, for further information on the effectiveness of improved lighting in reducing crime.

15. Removing hiding spots. Offenders who select and approach their victims outdoors need an isolated spot from which they can observe the area. Those responsible should properly secure abandoned buildings and construction sites so that offenders can't use them for cover. In addition, those responsible should cut back overgrown vegetation so that offenders no longer can hide in or behind it. You can find several ideas for enhancing the safety of urban parks and similar locations in Response Guide No. 9, Dealing With Crime and Disorder in Urban Parks.

Responses With Limited Effectiveness

16. Reforming legislation. By the early 1980s, in an effort to counteract some of the problems inherent in prosecuting sexual assault cases, most states passed some form of rape-law reform legislation. Most states expanded their criminal codes to include a broader range of sexual offenses, graded by seriousness, rather than using only a single offense of "rape." The reforms also shifted the focus from the victim's behavior and whether she consented or resisted to the offender's behavior and whether he used force or the threat of force. Finally, most states removed the requirement for corroborating witnesses and restricted the ability to introduce evidence about a victim's sexual history (i.e., enacted "rape shield laws").

While these reforms made sexual assault cases somewhat easier to prosecute and certainly changed public attitudes and knowledge about sexual assault, reformers also hoped that these changes would increase the likelihood that victims would report sexual assaults to police and increase arrest rates.74 Unfortunately, for the most part, the legislative reforms did not have these effects. While some communities have experienced increases in the rate of prosecution of sexual assaults as a result of the reforms, on a large scale, the intended outcomes of increased indictments and convictions remain largely unchanged from their pre-reform levels.75 While the reform effort may have helped to change attitudes about sexual assault, most researchers have found that it was largely symbolic.76