Investigating sexual assault cases is difficult for law enforcement under the best circumstances. Throw in inexperience, inadequate resources and a potential for conflict of interest, and the investigation could easily fail to establish a case strong enough to prove.
South Carolina’s Jessica Horton Act unintentionally opened the door to inadequate investigations of sexual assault. State Sens. Robert Ford, Vincent Sheheen and Larry Martin are trying to fix that.
Their goal is a good one, but the bill they filed last week doesn’t go far enough.
An incident at the College of Charleston last year drives home the point: A student accused several school athletes of assaulting her sexually. The campus police investigated her claims and declared there was “insufficient evidence” to make any arrests.
The student’s father was dissatisfied. He claimed campus police didn’t have the experience — and perhaps the will — to do the job right. He contended that the alleged assailants were given a break because of their status as school athletes.
Even assuming that the investigation was adequate, the very fact that it was performed by campus police with no input from the larger, more experienced and better equipped Charleston City Police Department leaves room for doubt.
The College’s police said they did what the law required. They led the investigation and got the State Law Enforcement Division to test some evidence.
The Ford/Sheheen/Martin bill clarifies the intent of the Jessica Horton Act, which sets guidelines for such investigations. The amendment says that the lead agency in a sexual assault investigation “may also cooperate with local law enforcement officials.”
To its credit, the College of Charleston has said it would “welcome and appreciate” help from the city police force in investigating sexual assaults on campus, if the amendment is passed.
But “may” and “must” are two different things. While the present College administration has indicated it would seek help from other law enforcement agencies, who’s to say the next administration will agree? Or what the position of other public universities will be.
Given the option, campus police “may” not bring police into the loop so that they can keep an embarrassing, damaging situation quiet.
Sen. Sheheen told reporter Andrew Knapp that he will review the issue of conflict of interests further, but said campus police “are real police officers.”
“They should abide by the conflict of interest provisions that all police officers everywhere in the country abide by,” he said.
That sounds fine in principle, but in reality a sexual assault case — especially on a college campus where people come and go — needs the highest level of professional investigation from the start.
The College of Charleston, The Citadel and the University of South Carolina have all had to deal with sexual assault allegations and the shame they bring if confirmed.
The best way to deal with sexual assault allegations is to make sure that the investigation is double-teamed by local law enforcement so that conclusions will be accurate and not be muddied by a possible of conflict of interest due to misplaced school spirit.