The number of rapes reported in Vancouver has risen in recent years, and police say they fear that the actual number of sexual assaults in the city could be much higher if unreported rapes were included.
“Our data shows that this crime is increasing in the city of Vancouver, and coupled with the nationwide reports of underreporting … we feel like there’s a gap here and that we can enhance our service delivery,” said Chris Sutter, an assistant chief for the Vancouver Police Department.
To help address the problem, the department applied for and recently received a grant for $74,398 from the Washington State Office of Crime Victims Advocacy. The department is one of 10 agencies statewide to participate in the new grant program, and the only police department to be selected.
Last year, 117 instances of rape were reported in Vancouver. Sutter said officials fear the actual number could be as much as three times higher when unreported rapes are factored into the count.
That underreporting could be for any number of reasons, including a fear of retaliation, victims worried that the police won’t believe them or that they won’t be supported if they report the crime.
Since 2013, the rate of rapes per 10,000 residents in Vancouver has gone up from 4.44 to 6.69, according to VPD crime statistics. About 47 percent of the victims were between the ages of 13 and 22, and 99 percent of the victims were female.
Sutter said the department is trying to fix that problem one step at a time. The grant serves as the next step and provides funding to help train investigating staff and patrol officers to use a more victim-centered approach when responding to reports of sexual assault.
“We want to do our very best to give professional and compassionate response to this crime,” Sutter said. “The outcome of this is to enhance our levels of response for victims of sexual assault and to give the very best investigation using the very best techniques so we can hold offenders accountable.”
For example, officers will learn new interviewing techniques to better respond to a victim who has suffered trauma.
“When somebody has experienced a traumatic event, they may not be able to recall everything that happened in perfect chronological order,” Sutter said. “In years past, that may have caused some doubt in victim credibility.”
Police are now more aware that memory is effected by trauma, Sutter added. This understanding changes how officers interview victims.
“We take our response to sexual assault crimes very seriously,” he said.
VPD is still working with local agencies and OCVA to establish roles, responsibilities and expectations of the pilot program. Sutter said that while implementing new response techniques, the department will also evaluate any additional needs as it develops the program.