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Role of campus police in sexual assault cases criticized

In September 2010, a female UNC student said that she walked into a planned sexual assault by two UNC football players, one of whom she was casually dating.

She said she managed to escape and ran back to her room, feeling traumatized. She immediately called campus police, but she said what happened next left her feeling even more lost.

The female student, who wished to remain anonymous, has since transferred to another university. She told The Daily Tar Heel that she felt as if campus police didn’t take her case seriously. Her case was classified as an attempted sexual assault in a heavily redacted police report.

The female student said she was told the case wasn’t worth pursuing in criminal court. She said she felt as if the fact that her alleged assaulters were athletes biased the officers against her.

“(An officer) looked me in the face and said that they didn’t do anything wrong, and I should settle for an apology,” the female student said. “I felt blamed. (It was like), ‘They’re athletes, why are you doing this to them?’”

Feeling pressured, she asked to stop the investigation. No charges were filed.

Her case highlights the question of what role campus police should play in sexual assault cases — a question that has become increasingly relevant as universities nationwide seek to reform their sexual assault policies.

UNC has been criticized for its handling of sexual assault cases, with three federal complaints pending in the U.S. Department of Education. The complaints allege that UNC has violated sexual assault victims’ rights and created a hostile environment for students who report sexual assault.

Scott Berkowitz, president of the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network, said campus police need to take rape more seriously.

“The way most schools currently treat rape is the way they treat plagiarism or parking tickets,” he said. “The important thing to remember is that rape is the second most violent crime, and we need to treat it as a serious criminal matter.”

Department of Public Safety Chief Jeff McCracken said sexual assaults on campus are under the department’s jurisdiction.

McCracken said DPS officers work with sexual assault survivors to see if it’s an option to pursue criminal charges.

He said cases are assigned an investigator who interacts with the victim and decides if there’s enough evidence to pursue charges.

Randy Young, DPS spokesman, said the department does not pressure victims of sexual assault into taking any particular avenue.

“We don’t tell them they can or can’t pursue (the case) somewhere else — we may tell them the prospects or the likelihood of what may occur,” he said. “Our first priority is making sure we do not victimize the victim.”

But Berkowitz said telling victims the likelihood of success when filing charges could be problematic.

“I think it’s valuable to talk about the process, and what (the victim) is going to have to go through in the process of pursuing a complaint,” he said. “But (officers) shouldn’t be substituting their own judgements for the victim’s.”

Monika Johnson Hostler, executive director of the N.C. Coalition Against Sexual Assault, said it is not the police’s responsibility to mention the future prospects of cases.

She said after a police investigation, cases are sent to the N.C. District Attorney’s office, and prosecutors — not sexual assault survivors — make the final decision to move forward. Survivors can decide whether they testify.

Sabrina Garcia, a crisis counselor with Chapel Hill police, said it’s hard when there is not enough evidence to pursue charges on what seems like a definite assault.

“You recognize the impact that an assault has created for this person, so that compassion never goes away,” Garcia said. “But you have to be true to the law … And in all fairness, you have to be honest to your victim (if) this is not going to be a strong case.

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“It’s far better to be honest than for that survivor to be surprised or to be retraumatized along the way.”

McCracken said officers don’t tell students if they should pursue a case with the University, outside of making them aware of resources.

In the female student’s case, she said the football players were never punished. Officers organized an apology through the players’ lawyers, she said.

“I missed days of class, I went to counseling,” she said. “I feel like that’s not fair — they never missed a game. (The player) does not deserve to be on that field.”

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