Colorado boasts picturesque mountains, unparalleled ski resorts and popular tourist attractions. Its economy was the hottest in the nation for three years running, according to U.S. News & World Report.
But the Centennial State also holds a distinction no one should be proud of.
Its sexual assault rate ranks third highest in the country, according to the FBI’s data for 2016 and 2017, the most recent full years available.
Only Alaska and Michigan have higher rates per 100,000 population than Colorado.
It’s impossible to know precisely why Colorado’s rate is so high, but those who work closely with victims say higher numbers of reports could stem from victim empowerment: perhaps due to the #MeToo movement, state laws that require rigorous investigation, and programs that inspire trust in law enforcement.
But victims might shy from coming forward if they realized how infrequently rapists are prosecuted. One reason for that stems from the victims themselves. Many refuse to take their case to court because they don’t wish to relive on the witness stand the horror of an attack.
“It’s hell going through every part of this,” says Don Christensen, president of Protect the Protectors, which advocates for rape victims in the military.
As a result, few rapists are arrested and fewer are convicted.
FBI data show that Colorado law enforcement agencies received 3,635 sexual assault reports in 2016, or nearly 66 per 100,000 population. In 2017, 3,858 rape reports poured in — nearly 69 per 100,000. Compare that to the nationwide rate of 41 and 42, in 2016 and 2017, respectively.
Alaska claimed the highest rate: 142 per 100,000 in 2016, and 117 in 2017, while Michigan’s rates of 73 and 71 in 2016 and 2017, respectively, placed second highest.
In sheer numbers, California topped all states with 13,702 rape reports in 2016 and 14,721 in 2017, though its rates stood at 35 and 37 per 100,000 population for those years.
At the local level, the Colorado Springs Police Department logged 388 rape reports in 2016, or a rate of 83 per 100,000 population, and 377 in 2017, for a rate of 81.
Unfortunately, the statistics don’t come with an explanation for why they’re high or low. Victim advocates often claim that higher numbers of reports signal that more victims are coming forward, which is a good thing. But higher numbers could also simply mean that more people are being raped.
The #MeToo movement, along with high-profile allegations such as the R. Kelly case, triggers more calls to the hotline of the Washington, D.C.-based Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network, the nation’s largest anti-sexual violence organization.
“So there might be a cultural factor influencing those numbers [of rape reports],” says Camille Cooper, RAINN’s vice president of public policy.
Cooper notes Colorado is among states that require DNA testing of the accused. It also helps that the Colorado Bureau of Investigation has no backlog of rape kits following the adoption of a law in 2013 that mandates sexual assault evidence be tested within 180 days of submission, says CBI communications director Susan Medina (see sidebar).
Those factors lay the groundwork for a better shot at conviction and bolster victims’ confidence in reporting assaults, Cooper says.
Another way to instill such confidence is the “Start By Believing” program, which has been adopted by agencies in Denver and Fort Collins; Weld, Fremont and Boulder counties, and UCHealth Memorial Hospital in Colorado Springs.
The program calls upon law enforcement, medical professionals and others to take “the pledge” to believe someone when they say they’ve been raped, to support them on the path to justice and healing, and to help end the silence.
But even when victims do come forward, rape remains a crime with low prosecution rates. In 2017, Colorado authorities made an arrest for every 2.5 violent crimes reported. But for rape, they made only one arrest per eight reported crimes.
Citing FBI and Department of Justice (DOJ) data, RAINN reports that of 1,000 sexual assaults that occur, only 5 perpetrators will see the inside of a jail cell.
Prosecution rates generally rise in states, like Colorado, where DNA processing stays up to date, Cooper says.
But exactly how many rape reports led to felony convictions both in Colorado and locally isn’t readily available in online crime statistics.
Saying the Fourth Judicial District Attorney’s Office is “slammed right now,” a DA’s spokesperson declined to discuss rape prosecutions or disclose how many rape convictions the office obtained in recent years.
It’s not an easy hill to climb to send a rapist to prison. In the courtroom, defense attorneys call into question consent. About 10 percent of victims who report back out — not because it didn’t happen, but to avoid being retraumatized, says Christensen, who served as a military prosecutor for 17 years.
“The defense will be trying to pry into every aspect of a victim’s life, and a victim perceives even the investigator and prosecutor don’t believe them,” he says.
Cases involving alcohol and drugs can get tangled up in memory gaps that defense attorneys exploit to argue reasonable doubt to gain acquittal.
“Then you have to overcome just the lack of understanding of the impact of the trauma, especially the freeze response,” he says. Juries find it hard to accept that a woman wouldn’t fight back, but Christensen reports, “Rarely do women fight back.”
“Getting the victim to follow through from start to finish [in court] is extremely difficult,” he says. “A lot depends on the kinds of facts you have.”