On March 29, 2013, a woman called the SLO Police Department to report that she had just been raped, and the suspect was still in her house. Three weeks earlier, another victim reported that a sexual assault had just occurred. In July, a woman called to report that a man had made sexual remarks to her son, and the day after Christmas a man was arrested for allegedly reaching up a victim’s shirt and exposing himself.
These were just a few of the 14 sexual assault cases that resulted in an arrest, and a fraction of the 85 reports made to the department in 2013, which was the largest increase of such reports in five years.
Between 2009 and 2012, the number of reported sexual assaults in the city averaged about 60 per year, including such crimes as rape, attempted rape, and fondling. But last year, the number of reports increased to 85. That equates to a 41.6 percent increase over the previous four-year average, and a 46.5 percent increase over the reports made in 2012. Additionally, there were 27 reported rapes in 2013, but only 16 reported in 2012.
Yet the sudden surge in reported cases is probably not a sign of a more disturbing increase in sex crimes; rather, it’s more likely the first sign of a positive trend.
“When we see any jump in actual numbers with law enforcement reports, our belief is that there’s not been an increase in sexual assaults—there’s been an increase in reporting,” said Jennifer Adams, executive director of Respect Inspire Support Empower (RISE), formerly the Sexual Assault Recovery and Prevention Center.
Sexual crimes are unique for a variety of reasons, the most defining of which is that victims often don’t go to the police. According to a survey by the U.S. Department of Justice, only 40 percent of sexual assault victims make a report to law enforcement. Compared to cases that are reported to local law enforcement, Adams said RISE typically provides services to about twice as many people.
Victims of sexual assault are often scrutinized more severely than if they had been the victim of another crime. But experts say that false reports only account for 2 to 3 percent of all cases.
“It kind of feeds into the myth around sexual assaults, and it’s one of the few crimes that, whenever it’s brought up, people want to start thinking about the victim lying,” Adams said.
Indeed, just three of the 85 reports in 2013 were ultimately deemed unfounded.
While no one can definitively explain why there was such a drastic increase in reported sexual assaults last year, local officials who spoke to New Times attributed the bump to a successful awareness campaign launched at the beginning of 2013.
On Feb. 1, 2013, RISE (then known as the SARP Center), the North County Women’s Shelter, and End Violence Against Women International launched the “Start By Believing Campaign” with a goal to foster an environment in which victims would actually come forward. The stated aim was “to change our community and outcomes for victims, one response at a time.”
SLO Chief of Police Steve Gesell was quoted in a press release, saying, “Victims of sexual crimes often choose to simply live with what happened rather than tell someone or ask for help … we are committed to doing our part to make it easier for victims to come forward.”
Asked about the increase, Capt. Chris Staley concurred that it may be a sign that more victims are willing to file reports as a result of the campaign.
“I think that definitely could have had an impact on how many people actually reported, because I think we all know how many of these go unreported,” he told New Times.
While more victims have filed reports, more often than not, these cases haven’t resulted in an arrest. More than half—48—of the reported cases were listed as inactive as of press time, while just 14 have resulted in an arrest and another 16 are listed as active.
Back-to-back attacks in mid January have further heightened local awareness of sexual assaults. A Cal Poly student reported being attacked in downtown SLO on Jan. 14. A week before that, another student was walking on campus when someone threw a pillowcase over her head and began removing her clothes. The student was able to escape and later reported the incident to the Cal Poly Safer group.
However, the most recent on-campus assault wasn’t technically reported to police. Cal Poly Chief of Police George Hughes said the department only became aware of the attack after being notified by the Cal Poly Safer group on Jan. 14. The victim didn’t report the crime directly, and campus police therefore haven’t opened an investigation.
“Since a crime has not been reported to us by a victim, we cannot do a criminal investigation,” Hughes said. “But that does not mean we’re not doing anything about it.”
There have been 15 sexual assaults reported on Cal Poly campus over the past five years, according to the department.
“Sexual assault—universally—is an underreported crime, and I don’t think we are any different,” Hughes said. “However, I think we have less sexual assaults happening on campus than are happening off campus.”
Police have ramped up safety precautions and notified students of the reported attack, along with an updated crime alert on Jan. 29 that offers some general tips to students, as well as advice on what to do if they are attacked.
“Do whatever it takes to survive,” the notice reads. “Remember, you are the victim. You have nothing to feel guilty or ashamed about. Rapists commit the crime, not the victim.”
Contact Senior Staff Writer Colin Rigley at firstname.lastname@example.org.