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Aftermath: Communicating With Law Enforcement

In the immediate aftermath of a sexual assault, it is common for victims to hesitate in contacting law enforcement. Facing the reality of the crime just committed is an incredibly emotional and physical feat that victims/survivors may not feel ready to handle. In reality, reporting the crime to police is an important step for the victim to take in regaining control and seeking justice. Sexual assault is a very serious crime.

Why Should I Report to Law Enforcement?i
Reporting sexual assault to law enforcement is an important step, as it can help victims/survivors with the following:

  • Medical attention:
    Law enforcement officers can help if the victim has any medical injuries and can assist with finding the nearest hospital to receive medical attention and/or a sexual assault forensic exam. For the victim’s health and self-protection, it is important to be checked and treated for possible injuries, even if none are visible. Learn more about the importance of medical attention.
  • Evidence Collection:
    Should a victim or survivor decide to pursue a criminal case, the case may be stronger if law enforcement is able to collect evidence from the scene and receive DNA evidence from a sexual assault forensic exam (“rape kit”). This evidence will be key in identifying the perpetrator in a sexual assault case. Learn more about the preservation of forensic evidence.
  • Recovery:
    Just by reporting the crime, the victim may have a good start on the track to recovery and feeling more in control of their life. Because sexual violence is a crime of power, taking this step will help a victim take back control. Many survivors feel a sense of closure when the rapist is brought to justice, and convicted. Learn more about recovery.
  • Justice:
    While there’s no way to change what happened, victims can seek justice for the crime. Additionally, reporting the crime to law enforcement is the one of the key elements to preventing sexual violence; every time we put a rapist in prison, we’re preventing him or her from committing another attack. Learn more about the impact of reporting.
  • Victim Compensation:
    In addition to its heavy emotional impact, crimes of sexual violence can impose tangible financial costs on the victims. If a victim has considered applying for compensation through his/her state’s Victim Compensation Fund for medical costs, counseling, or lost wages due to injuries that prevent a victim from working, the rape must be reported to the police first. Many states require the victim to report the crime within 72 hours, but many states also can make exceptions, and some have more flexible requirements for reporting. Learn more about victim compensation at www.nacvcb.org

What you can expect from law enforcement?
There has been great investment in law enforcement training in recent years. While there are occasional exceptions, most law enforcement officers are understanding and supportive of the victim/survivor. Many law enforcement agencies participate in what are known as SARTs (Sexual Assault Response Team), which provide a victim-centered, coordinated response to sexual assault that incorporates medical personnel, law enforcement and sexual assault service providers to organize the investigation, reduce repetition and facilitate communication among all agencies involved.

The law enforcement officer will document a written report and assign a tracking number to the crime. Reporting the attack to law enforcement as soon as possible may help a victim/survivor in relaying details that are still readily available. Trauma has the potential to impact a survivor’s capacity to narrate one’s sexual assault. Even if the report takes places days or months later, it’s important to report the most accurate and comprehensive details, such as:ii

  • Sequence of event(s)
  • Timeframe / length of event(s)
  • Words that were exchanged
  • Physical assault / injury
  • Weapons used
  • Bodily fluids seen or felt
  • Unusual details
  • Grooming / premeditation behavior by the perpetrator

The police interview may take as long as several hours, depending on the circumstances of the case. Some questions will probably feel intrusive, and the officer will probably go over the details of the attack several times. The extensive questioning isn't because the police don't believe the victim/survivor; it is the officer's job to get every detail down precisely, to make the strongest possible case against the rapist.

In some areas, a sexual assault victim advocate from a local rape crisis center may also accompany a victim to the police station. Per a victim’s request, these victim advocates can accompany a victim during the interview process are there to help ensure that s/he understand the purpose of the interview. To find a center near you, call 800.656.HOPE or visit: centers.rainn.org/

According to the International Association of Chiefs of Police, the law enforcement officer should:i

  • Respect the victim's immediate priorities (health and safety concerns)
  • Ask the victim if they'd like to have a support person present for questions
  • Use the victim's exact words and place those words in quotations
  • Make every effort to exclude his/her opinion and avoid asking leading questions
  • Create a timeline to show trauma / pre- and post-assault behavior
  • Provide victim with information on how to obtain medical treatment and undergo a forensic exam
  • NOT pressure the victim to make any decisions regarding participation in the investigation or prosecution

Do I have to communicate with law enforcement?
Victims are not obligated to report the attack. Victims/survivors have said that reporting is the last thing they want to do right after being attacked, because it can seem like an invasive, time consuming and difficult process.

There’s generally no legal barrier to reporting the attack even months afterwards. If a victim or survivor isn’t sure what to do, it’s better to report now while the memory of the attack is still fresh in his/her mind, so that s/he can describe what happened, as well as preserve the evidence. The victim/survivor can later decide whether or not to prosecute. Some states have statutes of limitations, which may prevent prosecution after a certain period of time.

There are also times when a third party, such as a doctor or teacher, must report an incident to police because of mandatory reporting laws in the state. Learn more about state mandatory reporting laws.

How Can I Report the Crime?

  • Call 911
  • Call the National Sexual Assault Hotline (800.656.HOPE) to be connected with the nearest local rape crisis center. Rape crisis center personnel can assist victims/survivors with the reporting process in their area
  • Report to the local SANE program and/or hospital emergency room

NOTE: To find a local hospital or healthcare facility that is equipped to collect forensic evidence, contact the National Sexual Assault Hotline (800.656.HOPE). The hotline will connect callers to their local rape crisis center, which can provide information on the nearest medical facility, and in some instances, send an advocate to accompany victims through the evidence collection and reporting process. To learn more about this process, visit the Online Hotline to chat directly with a trained staff member.


iSexual Assault Incident Reports. International Association of Chiefs of Police. 2008.

iiSexual Assault. 2010. http://www.emedicinehealth.com/sexual_assault

This product was supported by grant number 2009-D1-BX-K023 awarded by the Office for Victims of Crime, Office of Justice Programs, U.S. Department of Justice. The opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this product are those of the contributors and do not necessarily represent the official position or policies of the U.S. Department of Justice.


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