“An Epidemic of Disbelief”

In The Atlantic’s August cover story, an investigation into why the police fail to catch serial rapists

Approximately 125,000 rapes are reported in the United States each year. And in 49 out of every 50 cases, the alleged assailant goes free, often, we now know from DNA evidence, to assault again. Which means that rape—more than murder, more than robbery or assault—is the easiest violent crime to get away with. Barbara Bradley Hagerty spent a year investigating why. What she found is a criminal-justice system that reflexively disbelieves women: a “subterranean river of chauvinism” where the fate of a rape case usually depends on the detective’s view of the victim, not the perpetrator. Her investigation, “An Epidemic of Disbelief,” is The Atlantic’s August cover story.

“From the moment a woman calls 911 (and it is most always a woman; male victims rarely report sexual assaults), a rape allegation becomes, at every stage, more likely to slide into an investigatory crevice. Police may try to discourage the victim from filing a report. If she insists on pursuing a case, it may not be assigned to a detective. If the case is assigned to a detective, it will likely close with little investigation and no arrest.” If a woman who is raped is poor or otherwise vulnerable, if she had been using alcohol or drugs, or if she had been paid for sex at some point in her life, the bias against her intensifies. Hagerty looks into one case in Minneapolis, where the head of the city’s sex-crimes unit elected not to investigate or even run a background check on an assailant who turned out to be a serial rapist. Instead, police ran a background check on the victim, and stopped investigating when they saw that she had a prostitution charge from 12 years earlier. When Hagerty questioned the former officer, and countered that the prostitution charge was a dozen years old, he responded: “Yeah, but that lifestyle keeps dragging you back.”

“What recourse does a victim have when police or prosecutors refuse to take her seriously?,” Hagerty asks. “Virtually none, it seems. She can’t force the police to investigate and she can’t make prosecutors try her case, because the state has vast discretion in how it handles criminal cases.”

This epidemic of disbelief is what led as many as 200,000 rape kits in the U.S. to be shelved and left untested for decades, sealing shut unthinkable trauma and letting serial rapists walk. Hagerty looks into progress made since the Obama administration launched the Sexual Assault Kit Initiative (SAKI) in 2015: The Justice Department has so far awarded $154 million to 54 jurisdictions. Of those, just two sites—Detroit and Cleveland—have made a significant effort to test rape kits, open investigations, and prosecute assailants. The results in these two cities alone have been stunning.

But everywhere else, “the distance between aspiration and accomplishment is startling.” In response to FOIA requests, Hagerty reports that of the dozens of sites that received SAKI funding, Cleveland and Detroit alone have accounted for 38 percent of new investigations, 69 percent of charges brought, and 82 percent of convictions. Wisconsin, which received $5.1 million in funding, has had zero convictions. Iowa and Connecticut, which received $3 million and $3.3 million respectively, have not made a single charge or conviction. If Detroit and Cleveland have been so successful in testing rape kits and identifying dozens of serial rapists, then why have other police departments been unable to achieve the same results?

Hagerty writes that it all comes back, again and again, to law enforcement’s abiding skepticism of women who report being raped. A Cleveland detective who conducts training programs across the country says that officers continue to tell him privately that they think many women lie about being raped, and their claims aren’t worth investigating.

“Yet even as police and prosecutors seem stuck in time, our culture is moving forward,” Hagerty writes. “Too many women have disclosed their #MeToo moments; too many rape kits have been pulled out of storage rooms.” As the successes in Cleveland and Detroit demonstrate, when police take women’s claims seriously, rapists can be convicted. “Serial rapists could be swept from the streets and untold numbers of women could escape the worst moments of their life, if police and prosecutors would suspend their disbelief.”

Read “An Epidemic of Disbelief” at The Atlantic. The August issue of the magazine continues to publish across this week and next, and appears on newsstands later this week.