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Some things can't wait

Police beef up rape investigations as reported cases stay at high level


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In 2008's first eight months, TESSA responded to almost as many calls for service as in all of 2007.
  • In 2008's first eight months, TESSA responded to almost as many calls for service as in all of 2007.

The phone call came on a Sunday morning this summer. The woman's teenage daughter had told a friend she'd been raped a day earlier. The friend told her mom, who called, explaining, "If it was my daughter, I'd want to know."

The mother's initial reaction: "I was disbelieving."

She thought of explanations and excuses for the phone call as she drove to find her daughter at work.

They slipped away when she arrived and her daughter legally an adult woman though she still lived at home broke into tears.

"I know you'll never trust me again," the girl said.

Doubt quickly gave way to anger as mother and daughter drove to a Colorado Springs police station. How could this happen? The girl's weekend plans had changed dramatically, from a sleep-over at the home of one friend to playing protector for another who'd been drinking at a party. The daughter had refused alcohol, but she thinks there was something worse in the drink she accepted, possibly a date-rape drug.

She told her mother the night became a blur until she woke early the next morning in a strange room. Her clothes had been removed and she knew something was wrong.

With her mother waiting at the police station, the girl told an officer the details before the three headed to a hospital, where an exam erased any doubts about what had happened. The officer said a detective would soon call them.

Days slipped by. Anger mixed with sadness and then, increasingly, with disbelief. Why was this taking so long?

Turns out that rapes in Colorado Springs have been going steadily upward, and jumped nearly 50 percent in the second quarter of 2008 as compared to the same period in 2007. Police had fallen behind, and didn't pull in extra detectives until September.

The mother says she was amazed that nothing seemed to happen with her daughter's case until she made some noise, something many victims wouldn't or couldn't do themselves.

"It doesn't make any sense," says the woman, whose name the Independent is withholding to protect her daughter's privacy.

Sending a letter

This graph shows the number of rapes reported each month to TESSA.
  • This graph shows the number of rapes reported each month to TESSA.

Less than a week after the attack, the mother called the police to check on the investigation. An assistant in the department's sex crimes investigation unit said it could be weeks before it even started.

Before working on adult rape cases, the woman learned, the nine detectives in the unit would look first into any case with a child victim. They also would have to respond instantly any time an infant or child died, to gather evidence.

As she considered the shortage of sex-crime investigators and the apparent surplus of traffic cops, her grief shifted toward amazement.

"Who prioritizes the department's budget?" she asks. "Why is any set of people treated different?"

Approaching two weeks after the attack, she wrote a letter to city and police officials questioning the delays.

"How does a victim even begin the process of moving through something like this when absolutely nothing is being done on their case by the police?" she asks in her emotional letter over four single-spaced pages.

The letter seemed to have an immediate effect an investigation got underway. The mother says the case could stretch on for months or even years. Her daughter, now a college student, has doubts about the investigation and is reluctant to talk about what happened.

"That's common," the mother notes. She punctuates the account of her daughter's experience with knowing comments reflecting her volunteer work years ago as an advocate for rape victims. Doubts and anxieties must be accepted.

Less acceptable, she suggests, is that a shortage of investigators can leave cases unexamined for months. She sounds genuinely pleased in mid-September when she learns that police and city officials have pulled in two more detectives to tackle the rape-case backlog.

"That's really cool," she says.

Cops 'overwhelmed'

Like any kind of crime, reports of forcible rapes go up and down. Between April and June, there were 98, compared to 66 during the same period in 2007. First-quarter numbers virtually equaled those of 2007's first quarter.

Police and advocates with TESSA, a Colorado Springs nonprofit that helps victims of domestic violence and sexual assault, can't point to a single reason for the increase, suggesting it could be tied to the city's growth, increased reporting or some other factor.

But it's made things busy. TESSA sends advocates to area hospitals when they are called to help with adult rape cases. Those call-outs averaged around 11 each month in 2007, but have averaged more than 15 this year.

Detectives working sex crimes have essentially been "overwhelmed" by the growing caseload, according to Cmdr. Harry Killa, who heads the police investigations division. They've had to pick and choose what cases to pursue as a result, and have prioritized child cases. That prioritization will continue.

Meanwhile, since the two detectives working through the backlog of cases had been working burglaries and other crimes, some of those could get less attention. Killa says it's a trade-off, and the department will make more shifts if the "surge" in rape cases continues.


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