If you’ve called the police to report a sexual assault, chances are you will be waiting for a while before an officer shows up. That’s because many police departments, faced with dwindling forces and budget cuts, prioritize response to rape victims lower than other emergency calls where people may be in immediate danger. In Denver, after at least one rape victim walked out of the hospital because it took more than two hours for police to arrive, the city police force is revamping its sexual assault policy.
Denver’s new policy will ask supervisors to send an officer as soon as possible if a victim has been waiting for an hour, and are required to send someone if the wait has been longer than 90 minutes. As sexual assault nurse examiners usually must wait for officers to speak to the victim before giving a rape exam, the policy will also allow hospital staff to get police approval over the phone to begin the exam while waiting for an officer.
Considering how few rapes are reported to the police, any delay could discourage victims from going forward with their exams, which take about 3-4 hours to administer. Denver is hardly the only place where police have had to sacrifice sexual assault cases in an austerity-induced triage. Last month, slow police response prompted some Detroit residents to resort to vigilante justice, allegedly hunting down and beating an accused rapist of a 15-year-old girl with Downs syndrome. The girl waited seven hours for Detroit police to give her a rape kit. Police reportedly interviewed her about the assault five days later and did not submit the rape kit for analysis until 21 days later. Rape kit processing is notoriously sluggish all over the country.
These delays are not necessarily because police are dismissive of sexual assault, though it may be perceived that way. Rather, as the director of Denver’s Rape Assistance and Awareness Program explained to the Denver Post, “There just isn’t enough manpower.” Budget cuts have prevented Denver from hiring officers since 2008, causing response times to slow down significantly. Police forces all over the country have been decimated by cuts imposed by governments grappling with economic crisis. In Detroit, severe cuts have slowed police response times to even life-threatening emergencies to about 32 minutes. A woman in Oregon was raped and choked by her ex-boyfriend because police did not have enough funding to send an officer to her house.
Of course, many police departments cannot blame budget cuts for entrenched policies that discourage and cast suspicion on rape victims. Norfolk, VA police only recently changed their system of automatically classifying all sexual assault claims as “unfounded.” Countless victims report being bullied or ignored by skeptical police officers. This all too common attitude leaves serial rapists free to attack more victims.