Changes in law enforcement vital to sexual assault response

By Lary Kuhns

As many are aware, Alaska has the highest per capita rate of domestic violence, sexual assault as well as child sexual abuse.
When I began my law enforcement career in 1991, investigative resources were limited for law enforcement, medical doctors and support services for victims of sexual assault and child sexual abuse. And yes, sexual abuse of a minor is a violent act and covered under the domestic violence statutes. In most cases — but not all — adult males are the main suspects in sex assault cases, and the idea of a male police officer interviewing an adult female or child victim was theoretically and potentially awkward for all parties involved. Since the late 1990s, times have changed for the better with adjustments in the law.
Historically, most sex offenses are committed by individuals known to the victim. That’s not to say there are rarely any stranger assaults, because they certainly do occur. However, when interviewed, most victims relate that the perpetrator was someone either known to them or their respective family whom they had regular or occasional contact.
In the mid 1990s, law enforcement gained a valuable tool when Homer became the first city in Alaska to utilize the SANE/SART Program. (Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner/Sexual Assault Response Team). This program consists of highly trained forensic nurses, law enforcement, mental health, Office of Children’s Services, the District Attorney’s office and support service advocates from the Haven House, as well as highly trained forensic interviewers who now work in concert to apprehend and hold suspects accountable.
On the other hand, the SART/SANE program also ensures that those mistakenly accused can have a fair and impartial investigation of the allegations so their reputations are not tarnished.
Now popular and utilized around the state, SART/SANE is a valuable tool law enforcement employs during the initial response to sexual offense investigations. Forensic nurses collect microscopic evidence that before may have gone undetected and uncollected. Forensic photography from injuries and bruising can now be documented days after the injuries occurred and the interviewing of victims has now been streamlined so they can keep their exposure to the process at a minimum.
I can honestly say that, without SART/SANE, many sex offenders currently on the State of Alaska Sex Offender Registry would not have been apprehended and held accountable.
In addition, the State of Alaska in the late 1990s enacted laws pertaining to domestic violence and sexual assault that removed the statute of limitations on sexual offenses. From that moment on, sexual offenders could not hide behind the law anymore, and victims are now in control to reveal their story to law enforcement any time they feel free to — and in their time.
This law is of great value to the victims, because many times victims refuse to report they have been abused or will only provide law enforcement with the partial information they feel may be just enough to stop ongoing abuse. This is in no way an indication the victim is being untruthful or their story lacks credibility; it merely is all the victim is willing to tell at the time for reasons only known to them.
Members of the victim’s family, law enforcement and others must respect the victim’s choice, because many times they feel a great deal of shame about what has happened to them.
To emphasize this point, I once gave a talk to a small group of folks about sex crime investigations. As I began to talk, I asked them to individually talk about any sexual involvement they had experienced; consensual or otherwise. I recall laughter initially among the group that quickly turned to a look of panic on several faces after they realized I was serious.
When I saw the look of dread on the person who would have been the first confessor, I stopped them and told everyone to hold that thought and feeling, and explained to them that now they can imagine how a victim of sexual assault might feel when they have to tell a forensic interviewer, police officer and jurors in a court room about their sexual experiences.
Extreme? Probably. Effective? Absolutely.
The point being made is that, when investigating sexual assault or child sexual abuse, it is important for investigators to understand the feelings of the victim, and recognize that — just as when a criminal makes a “full” confession — many times victims also fail to reveal everything that happened.
I don’t bring this comparison of a victim’s statement and defendant’s confession as a parallel in terms of credibility or character. I am comparing the two as a means of understanding. Many times, when revealing their innermost secrets, individuals will only reveal enough to stop the discomfort they are experiencing.
In closing, I hope those who choose to read this understand that most law enforcement officers and agencies that we at the Homer Police Department interact with regard “crimes against persons” as the most important function of our agencies. Individuals who have been the victim of sexual offenses can rest assured their case will be handled in a very professional and understanding manner when making a report to HPD.
To make a report of child abuse, call OCS at: 1-855-352-8934. To make a report of any crime against a person, contact HPD at: 907-235-3150 or the Alaska State Troopers at: 907-235-3000.

Sgt. Lary Kuhns has worked in law enforcement on the Kenai Peninsula for more than 20 years. He has lived in Homer with his wife and children since 1982.

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Posted by on Jan 28th, 2014 and filed under Point of View. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

2 Responses for “Changes in law enforcement vital to sexual assault response”

  1. interesting says:

    Unfortunately a rape was committed in this community over a year and a half ago and there has so far been no accountability, not for the perpetrators, or the 80+ witnesses who just watched and took photos, or for the adults that enabled the behavior.

    I have often wondered why the police did not arrest the perpetrators after the crime. There was evidence from the hospital the night after the rape, there were 80 plus witnesses with photo evidence….just what was the reason for waiting a month to arrest and why are they still out and about working and living their lives a year and a half after committing a rape?

    This type of injustice makes us all feel unsafe in our community.

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