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Opinion
Sarasota Wednesday, Jan. 30, 2019 6 months ago

My View: Police work to make assault reports as painless as possible

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Me Too movement prompts focus on empowerment.
by: Julie London

“If you’ve been sexually harassed or assaulted, write ‘me too’ as a reply to this tweet. #MeToo”

The date was Oct. 15, 2017, and the above tweet by actress/activist Alyssa Milano, inspired by African-American activist Tarana Burke, began a movement.  With the recent one-year anniversary of the “Me,Too” movement, women (and some men) have felt empowerment in revealing their personal stories.

They’ve learned they aren’t alone, and most important, feel believed.

With the passage of time, did the Me, Too movement encourage those to report crimes, or does the stigmaforce a whole new generation of victims to remain silent? At the Sarasota Police Department, they are doing everything to make the crime of sexual assault as easy and safe as possible to report.

A nationwide Department of Justice study found that in 2016, more than 70% of sexual assaults were not reported.

According to SPD Capt. Jonathan Todd, there has not been a significant uptick in reporting.  “It is up only slightly,” he said. 

However, at the Safe Place and Rape Crisis Center (SPARCC), Communications Manager Cheri Heasley notes that calls to the 24/7 helpline have increased recently. 

“The first person a victim usually calls is a loved one,” said Sarasota Police Chief Bernadette DiPino. “That person should advise them to call 911. The sooner a crime is reported, the better chance of a conviction and getting the person while they are still in the area.”

For victims who fear for their safety, DiPino calls their bluff: “When the criminal threatens to harm the victim if they tell, that is just about retaining control and power. There are many resources in place to keep the victim safe.”

Heasley agrees: “The reason we focus on empowerment is that sexual assault is not about sex.”

SPARCC uses empowerment-based advocacy, which means it allows survivors to choose what service and programs they need and want.

Di Pino points out everyone has the right time to tell her story. “They will when they’re comfortable,” she says.

Even though the Florida statute of limitations is five years, the police department still wants to make a report. This may show the person may not be the only victim if the name pops up in a database.  Award-winning national motivational speaker Linda Larsen of Sarasota spoke out at the beginning of the Me, Too Movement: “I definitely feel like speaking out was the right thing to do. I do not regret it. I think doing so gave other women the awareness that they are not alone.

In some cases, when a person does not want to press charges, a nurse can be a surrogate. The police also will not contact the victim if that’s what is requested. As Todd said: “Most victims know their attackers. They are rarely strangers.” Some victims may feel the incident was too minor to report or they simply didn’t have proof. “No case is too small to report.”

SPD tries to have a female officer on the front line, so a female victim can feel a bond or immediate trust. However, all officers are trained to respond in a non-judgmental manner. In addition, victim advocates provide resources and counseling options. “They stay with the victim throughout he entire case,” Di Pino says. This way the victim doesn’t have the ordeal of repeating the same story to a host of different people. 

 DiPino is frank about the “intrusive” exam victims go through for a rape kit, which can make them feel like a
victim all over again. “DNA is so important,” she says. “It’s the new fingerprint. It will be more effective in getting the bad guys than the fingerprint in the future."

DiPino remains aware of the courage it takes to report a sexual assault crime. “There is the feeling of embarrassment. They may believe the incident occurred of their own doing. But I don’t care if they were walking down the street naked,” she says. “No one deserves to be assaulted. No means no.”

Julie London is the owner of SW Florida Elder Issues Consulting, which specializes in guardianship prevention. She can be followed on Twitter at https://twitter.com/DearBubbie

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