Wednesday, July 8, 2015

How a Bungled Police Investigation Led to a Possible Rape Victim's Shaming

Posted By on Wed, Jul 8, 2015 at 7:00 AM

click to enlarge Brittany Burke called Jefferson City Police Department because she feared she'd been assaulted. Things only got worse from there. - PHOTO COURTESY OF FLICKR/KOMU NEWS
  • Photo Courtesy of Flickr/KOMU News
  • Brittany Burke called Jefferson City Police Department because she feared she'd been assaulted. Things only got worse from there.

One sexual-assault kit. Clothing — underwear, dress pants, sport jacket, white shirt and shoes. Four vials of blood. One container of urine. Photos of bruises and abrasions on the woman's body. Dried secretions, soil and debris, suspected semen and saliva. Matted hair cuttings. The Jefferson City Police Department gathered all these things from a young woman named Brittany Burke after she called them to report a possible sexual assault on April 9.

She had been in a blackout, and wasn't sure what had happened, but a three-hour invasive exam by a sexual-assault nurse examiner found vaginal abrasions consistent with assault. The nurse also noted on her report that suspected semen was present.

Under Missouri law, because the victim was blacked out, she was unable to consent. Under Missouri law, it seemed likely that a crime had occurred.

"I don't remember what happened to me," Burke told Jefferson City police detective Curtis Finke. "This isn't normal."

Burke also told Detective Finke this: "I'm a female, and I work in politics." A former staffer for Governor Jay Nixon, she was working as a consultant.

The detective's report continues, "Burke stated it's rough for her and the least amount of people that know about this the better."

Fast-forward two months.

Police decided to close the case, even though lab tests from the rape kit had yet to come back — and even though their own report makes clear that no one knew where Burke was from approximately 1 to 3 a.m. on the morning in question. According to Jefferson City police captain Doug Shoemaker, the department closed the case at Burke's request — a claim she adamantly denies. 

And then the police released their report to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. The paper made the decision to run Burke's name — and all the juicy details dutifully noted by Detective Finke — in a front-page article June 19 that would have been more at home in a tabloid.

See also: How the Post-Dispatch Shamed a Possible Rape Victim -- and Embarrassed Itself

Forget "the least amount of people" knowing. Suddenly everyone knew that Brittany Burke had called the police to report a possible sexual assault. They were told the size of her bar tabs that night; the fact that she'd had a past relationship with former House Speaker John Diehl, even though the politician had nothing to do with the police report she had made; and even the nickname under which she saved Diehl's cell number in her phone.

The way the case was handled flies in the face of common sense, best practices and policy when dealing with possible assault victims.

"When a rape victim calls the police, she is calling for help," says Colleen Coble, CEO of the Jefferson City-based Missouri Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence. "Receiving that help is our community expectation of the police and the right of any of us who are hurt in a crime."

Coble read the 21-page report, and one of many things that stuck out to her from a procedural aspect was that police did not transport Burke directly to a hospital. "They did not immediately get a rape victim to medical care, but questioned her at length first," she says.

"We can and need to do better."

"I Want Him to Burn in Hell"

In the aftermath of the Post-Dispatch's story, advocates rallied to Burke's side, criticizing the newspaper for its focus on the prurient details in the report rather than its reason for existence — a former political operative's report of possible sexual assault while in a blackout.  

But the newspaper's victimization of Burke, troubling though it is, was only possible because of the way Jefferson City police handled her report in the first place. Detective Finke failed to follow best practices in dealing with reports of sexual assault — and even, in some cases, the most minimum of standards. And then police closed the case without even informing the woman at its center, as Burke's attorney confirmed to Riverfront Times last week.

In fact, Burke only learned the case had been closed when she read it in the paper.  

Detective Finke wrote in the report that he closed the case "due to lack of victim cooperation." But if you actually read the report, it's not at all clear that Burke stopped cooperating. And even if she had (a charge she denies), it was still the department's job to follow through with evidence gathered by the nurse.

"I don't know if I was raped," Burke told Finke in what proved to be their final interview on April 15. She did know, however, that something bad had happened. She told him that life had become awful, that people were looking at her funny, that she wasn't sleeping, that she felt lost. She just wanted the whole thing to end.

In that context, "I don't know if I was raped" wasn't an admission from Burke that she had been wrong to file the report — but a cry of despair, of truly not remembering what had happened that night, and fearing the worst.  

Earlier in their conversation that same day, the officer asked Burke what would happen if the lab report came back with a lead — what would she want to happen to the person who assaulted her?

She stated, "I want him to burn in Hell."

Here's how Finke describes his response in the report:

I told Burke if I went out and arrested someone that did this I don't think she would get a sense of relief.

Finke declined comment, referring questions about the case to Shoemaker.

Some states have specific protocols that establish a clear way forward with highly sensitive cases involving potential rape victims. There are none in place in Missouri.

There are still basic standards, however. The International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) provides guidance on how to respectfully and professionally investigate sexual assault. Among the directives, one is paramount: The focus should be on the suspect, not the victim. At no time should the officer be tempted to make personal judgments about the victim's "character, behavior or credibility."

Yet the Missouri branch of the Association of Police Chiefs appears to be using protocol that's twenty years out of date. A sample policy posted on the organization's website is from 1994, and it includes the troubling step of running a criminal background check on the victim, including any prior reports of sexual assaults.

Next: How police failed to follow best practices in their investigation.

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