A petition from the D.C. Justice for Survivors Campaign circulating throughout the District in support of the passage of the Sexual Assault Victims’ Rights Amendment Act of 2013 is making waves among student activists on Georgetown’s campus.

Originally proposed in June 2013 by D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson and Councilmember Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6), SAVRAA would provide more oversight of MPD in sexual assault cases via the Office of Police Complaints, ensure that sexual assault survivors have an advocate present on their behalf at medical examinations and interviews with law enforcement and that communications between the two parties are confidential, require the Metropolitan Police Department to process rape kits more quickly and specify that sexual assault survivors are not to be charged for rape kits. The bill is scheduled to come before the D.C. Council in spring 2014.

The introduction of SAVRAA partially stemmed from a January 2013 Human Rights Watch report that alleged that the Metropolitan Police Department had been mishandling and incorrectly documenting sexual assault cases in D.C.

According to the 196-page report, titled “Capitol Offense: Police Mishandling on Sexual Assault Cases in the District of Columbia,” MPD had been misclassifying sexual assault cases as lesser offenses and failing to properly investigate the cases, leaving the prosecution no choice but to throw the cases out.

MPD, however, objects to some of the Human Rights Watch report’s allegations and subsequent conclusions drawn from it.
“A lot of what they said in their report was inaccurate,” MPD Commander George Kucik said of the report.

DCJSC has proposed three amendments to SAVRAA: the elimination of a current exception to the victim’s right to have an advocate present for cases where the advocate would be detrimental to the purpose of the exam or interview, the requirement of regular case review by a Sexual Assault Response Team or an expert and the establishment of an external consult to aid MPD with sexual assault investigations.

With nearly half of its members sexual assault survivors themselves, DCJSC wrote these amendments based on the experiences of sexual assault survivors as well as sexual assault experts who work in the legal system. The advocacy group includes members of the D.C. chapter of the National Organization for Women, the D.C. Rape Crisis Center and Collective Action for Safe Spaces.

“This is really a chance for survivors to have their voices heard in the process, which isn’t something that happens often,” CASS Communications Director Renee Davidson said.

Kucik stressed MPD’s commitment to creating a safe space for sexual assault victims to work within the system.

“The department is willing and trying to change what we need to change to make our investigations better and to ensure that victims are treated properly during our investigative process,” Kucik said.

Susan Mottet, president of the D.C. chapter of the National Organization for Women, expressed skepticism that the MPD is engaging in thorough case review and appropriately investigating cases.

“The point is the cases are not being all documented appropriately and investigated appropriately, and until that happens, we have rapists running around loose on our streets with impunity and no one is safe,” Mottet said.

Kucik, however, said that MPD has made improvements in regard to how the department handles sexual assault cases.

“Upping our training is one big thing, and then we’ve also looked at our personnel, members we believe probably not a best fit for a sexual assault unit. We are putting them elsewhere and replacing people with other detectives that we think are a better fit for a sexual assault unit,” Kucik said.

Kusik responded to DCJSC’s three amendments, taking issue with the rigidity of the amendment that would allow no exceptions to the victim’s right to an advocate.

“We’re not married to the language that’s in there right now about the exception. We just want to still have some flexibility for those — we just can’t always predict what’ll happen,” Kucik said. “If somehow an advocate began to interfere with an interview or something, we would just want to have something where we’d have something in place to deal with it.”

Mottet stood by the amendment’s necessity.

“A trained advocate wouldn’t create any problems with the process or the bill,” Mottet said.

According to Kucik, while MPD is in full support of the case review requirement delineated in the petition, the department is still in the process of figuring out how to approach it more efficiently.

“At the end of the day, we agreed for the review, to do the review. We’re totally on board with that,” Kucik said.

Sexual Assault Peer Educator and president of College Democrats Chandini Jha (COL ’16) created a simplified version of DCJSC’s petition on Change.org to circulate around Georgetown to raise awareness of SAVRAA among college students.

“For now, I think that both of our petitions have kind of the same overarching goal of getting SAVRAA passed. I created this student petition because I wanted to really get students informed on the issue and get signatures in a way that’s more efficient than I think what the DC Survivor’s petition is,” Jha said.

Alyssa Peterson (COL ’14), who advocated for the passage of the Violence Against Women Act last year, approached Women in Politics Co-President Kayla Corcoran (COL ’15) on behalf of College Democrats for help in distributing the petition.

“The mission of WiP is to advocate and empower women in and outside of the political sphere both on campus and off campus. WiP felt that passing along the petition urging the D.C. Council to pass SAVRAA was not only well within the bounds of our goals for the organization, but it was also necessary,” Corcoran wrote in an email.

Jha’s petition has reached 236 signatures, and it will continue to be circulated until early April.

“I think this will actually make a pretty big impact, and I think it’s been pretty successful just because in a smaller locality like D.C., city council members pay a lot more attention when they get petitions with several hundred signatures or over a thousand signatures because it isn’t common to see petitions of that magnitude,” Peterson said.

Women’s Center Director Laura Kovach also voiced her support for SAVRAA.

“Statistically, we know that women aged 16 to 24 experience sexual assault at rates higher than any other population based on age. We have a large number of college campuses in the District, and there needs to be a commitment to services, resources and justice for survivors, and SAVRAA is a step in the right direction for everyone, including our college students,” Kovach wrote in an email.

Davidson expressed optimism about DCJSC’s relationship with MPD moving forward.

“There have been promising signs. We think that they have an understanding that the community really, really is expressing a need for this, so I am hopeful, and I am hopeful that they will pull through in this, but we will see when the bill gets marked up … and that’s when we’ll know for sure where folks stand on the issue,” Davidson said.

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