High profile cases not seen as signal that rape is on rise
Although it may seem that the number of locally reported sexual assaults is on the rise, Aspen police say that’s not necessarily the case.
There have been several highly-publicized police investigations into sexual assaults in the past two years, including the alleged rape of a teenage girl last week. Data shows no strong increase in reporting these types of sensitive crimes, but police and victim’s advocates hope victims will continue to come forward.
“It may appear the number [of reported sexual assaults] is on the rise, but whether that’s indicative of the actual number of sexual assaults that have occurred is really unknown,” said Glenn Schaffer, Deputy Police Chief of operations of the Aspen Police Department.
“There are a lot of things out there like education and information these days that encourage more people to come forward to talk with us about what happened,” he continued.
Police data of the last five years is inconclusive, partly because its accuracy depends on police officers categorizing assault charges exactly the same way for each report. According to Deputy Police Chief Richard Pryor, the laws separating a “sexual assault” charge from a lesser “sexual offense” charge have changed within the past couple of years.
“Sexual assaults are very difficult cases to investigate,” Schaffer said. “We have some that we are able to prove did or didn’t happen, and some we can’t. It’s the nature of the investigation that makes it difficult to prove. It’s very personal, traumatic, and usually it’s one person’s word against another’s.”
Schaffer speculated that news coverage of investigations into sexual assaults doesn’t make it any easier for victims to come forward, because it puts their experience in the limelight.
Peg McGavok, director of RESPONSE, a local nonprofit that offers support and counseling for domestic violence and sexual assault victims, said it takes an “incredible amount of courage” for a victim to report a crime. RESPONSE is an advocate for the victim, whether or not they want to report an alleged crime.
“At RESPONSE we try to explain to the victim what the process is, and we try not to push them in one way or the other,” McGavok said. “It’s not a pleasant experience for them to go through, and so it has to be their choice.”
She did say she feels there may be less shame attached to reporting crimes now than there used to be.
“I think people are more able to say `It had nothing to do with me, it was that person, and I’m a victim,’ ” she said. “Hopefully there isn’t so much stigma attached to it now.”
Police say they work to build up trust with victims, so they feel comfortable coming forward to report the crime and press charges against a perpetrator.
“I hope it’s easier for them to report crimes, and easier to talk to people like the police department,” said Michelle White, who works with victims’ assistance at the Aspen Police Department.
The police department is required to give victims information on both victims’ compensation and victims’ rights, and White said that might encourage people to come forward.
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