Dear Officer ,
I don’t know anything about you, your reputation in town, your previous efforts towards changing the way officers advocate in their work with survivors of sexual assault. I want to assume your best intentions. Your presence at this event makes me sure you are an ally to our community and I sincerely thank you for all that you do, each and every day. Your sincere acknowledgement of the survivors’ stories was respectful and admirable.
However, in the same breath that you said “Officers don’t blame survivors for being sexually assaulted”, you sympathetically stated: “I just wish you had come to us.” A survivor on the panel responded emphatically that she had no interest, at the time, in being in the same room as her perpetrator, just the thought made her physically ill. We need to question our reporting systems — not survivors’ decisions to engage with them.
I want you to know that despite what you think justice, accountability, or healing look like, each survivor has her own needs and wants and to suggest that reporting to the police after a survivor speaks out is a reflection of our society’s narrow view of justice after sexual violence: sending the perpetrator to prison. To suggest that a survivor should have done something differently can be re-traumatizing. Survivors are inundated with messages of blame from family, friends, and the media; survivors have to deal with an incredible level of scrutiny of their actions. Your well-intentioned comment suggests that the survivor did something wrong, could have “survived” better, or perhaps that she did not “get justice” for herself.
When “even survivors who do report to the police are often abandoned by the system. Only a quarter of all reported rapes lead to an arrest, only a fifth lead to prosecution, and only half of those prosecutions result in felony conviction,” it’s understandable why survivors might decide not to go to the police.
I’m confident you want what’s best for every survivor. Next time you have the opportunity to hear a survivor volunteer to share her story to educate allies and police officers, remember: your words are powerful. The language and sensitivity the police department adopts when working with survivors of sexual assault matters. Both in terms of your overall effectiveness in demonstrating compassion, as well as impacting survivors who might someday decide to come to the police for help. Lastly, as a leader in your department, please ensure that next time there’s an “Empowerment Victims” event, there are more than 2 men in the room.
In her article on Feministing, Wagatwe Wanjuki concludes: “What I am saying is that we need to respect individual survivors and their decisions in this very personal, difficult process. Just as pro-choice advocates call on legislators to “trust women,” I advocate for us to trust survivors of violence. Why can’t we trust women (and survivors of all identities) to know what is the best way for them to heal?”
Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter…in the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.