Words Matter

“Words mean more than what is set down on paper.  It takes the human voice to infuse them with deeper meaning.”
– Maya Angelou

April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month (SAAM), and like many organizations on campus and across the country, UWPD again joins this annual call to action to raise awareness about the prevalence of sexual violence and to further our respective and collective efforts to put an end to it.  This year’s SAAM theme, “Embrace Your Voice”, is centered around engaging new voices and the ways in which our words shape the world around us. Words matter.  And their power is optimized when they are given voice.

We all have a unique role to play in preventing sexual assault and in changing the culture surrounding it. The role of police in this effort may appear simple on its face – we invest in education and awareness initiatives endeavoring to prevent sexual violence and then respond to investigate these crimes when they occur. But the pervasiveness of sexual violence in its many forms, and police response to reports of sexual violence, is historically (and sadly to some degree presently) fraught.  Add to this the overall culture and existing attitudes with respect to gender stereotypes and sexual violence and the relationship between police and victims of sexual violence, particularly those from marginalized groups, becomes even more complicated.

So what voice does UWPD lend to the rallying cry to end sexual violence?  What are the messages that we wish to communicate – the words we offer toward change? To begin, borrowing on the motto from the campaign launched in 2014 by the White House Task Force to Prevent Sexual Assault – it’s on us.  Each of us must own what is ours and do our part to end sexual violence.  As police professionals, we can start by educating our own, by hiring officers with the capacity to understand the complexities and sensitivities of these issues, and by providing them with the necessary and relevant training to best serve. At UWPD, we believe that how we engage with our students and our campus partners is the foundation for establishing trust.  Trust, in turn, helps to foster a climate in which victims of sexual assault understand that their police department will support them in whatever way possible regardless of specific decisions ultimately made to pursue or not pursue a criminal investigation/formal charges. Our first priority is in preserving safety and responding to victims of crime with compassion.  Justice and victims are best served when police start from a position free from assumption, bias, stereotypes, and judgment.

A recent report from the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) entitled, Responding to Sexual Violence in LGBTQ+ Communities: Law Enforcement Strategies and Considerations, cites alarming and disturbing statistics regarding the frequency of sexual violence perpetrated against those who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, questioning, and queer and illuminates the work we (police) have to do in best serving this community and all victims of sexual assault and domestic violence. Many barriers to reporting exist, and for victims in the LGBTQ+ or other marginalized communities, these barriers are compounded by a criminal justice system that has in large part failed victims of sexual violence and in many ways re-traumatizes them. The decision to come forward to disclose or report is an individual choice and one that when considered in the context of various aspects of a victim’s identity and cultural factors (race, religious or cultural affiliation, disability, immigration status, etc.) is indeed a very difficult choice to make. When victims do come forward to police, a swift and meaningful criminal justice response is critical for preventing future victimization and in deterring repeat abuses.  Further, appropriate police response not only fosters victim confidence, it also makes victims more likely to report future incidents. Police have a unique opportunity to help give voice to victims of sexual violence and to help create cultural change. To this end, it is imperative that we find ways to build trust and to identify, prevent, and eliminate bias in our own responses.

The UW-Madison Police Department is committed to prevention, education/awareness, and to competent and compassionate investigations regardless of the specific safety issue or crime. That said, our success in doing so requires that we understand the unique challenges that exist with respect to sexual violence and the important role we play in the criminal justice and community response to sexual assault. Understanding how and why survivors share their experience is critical to how police should respond to sexual or gender-based violence and vital to proactively and effectively addressing their needs. UWPD works closely with our campus and community partners in the Division of Student Life, University Health Services, Housing, Rape Crisis Center, LGBT Campus Center, and others on prevention of and response to sexual assault and to raise our voices in support of its survivors. One way that we have to get the word out and send a supportive message to victims of sexual assault is through our own campaigns such as “Tell Us” and “We Believe You.”  With these messages, UWPD hopes that survivors will feel more comfortable in coming to us to report an assault.  While we understand that a video or billboard message in and of itself isn’t likely to prompt a decision to report, we believe these campaigns combined with other dedicated efforts help raise awareness, further the conversation, and positively contribute to the broader campus culture and climate.

In addition to our campus partnerships and the collaborative, proactive work we do toward sexual assault prevention, awareness, and communication, UWPD officers receive initial and ongoing training not only in conducting sexual assault investigations, but in related topics such as implicit bias, cultural competency, ethics, professional communications, interviewing, and report-writing.  Our sensitive crimes detectives have received specialized training in trauma-informed investigations, and it is our standard practice to connect victims with advocacy support at the earliest possible opportunity.  UWPD policies and training direct officers to conduct sensitive and thorough investigations, to refer victims to available resources as appropriate, and to inform them of their rights as victims whether in criminal justice processes, in campus conduct processes, or both. Providing victims with the opportunity to make informed choices empowers them to choose which, if any, accountability options may be best for them.

SAAM 2018 encourages each of us to embrace our voice and to use our voice to become an agent for change.  As a young officer with the Madison Police Department in the early 1990’s, by policy only female officers were sent to reports of sexual assault.  I recall vividly the first sexual assault to which I responded.  The tears and the fears of the victim – a woman barely younger than I was at the time – changed me forever.  Her story of sexual trauma and survival, and the stories of far too many women that have followed during my career are lessons in courage and in the power of speaking up and speaking out.  Their stories have not only shaped me and the work I do, they remind me of the profound responsibility we have as police officers to serve victims with open minds and hearts, to conduct competent investigations, and to do what we can, wherever we can, to speak out about sexual violence.  The collective UWPD voice offers support and reassurance to sexual assault survivors and encourages victims of sexual violence to embrace their own voice.  Together, our words – our voice – can change the narrative and create a culture of respect, equality, and safety.