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Advocates Say Sexual Violence Survivors Face Gaps In Law Enforcement Training

April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month. While the issue has received more and more attention, sexual assault is a crime that's still chronically under-reported across the nation. Concern about how the criminal justice system will respond is one of the top reasons victims say they don't report.

In response, some law enforcement agencies in Wyoming see training as a way to gain victims' trust, but that's not a statewide priority.

Tara Muir described Wyoming as a crap-shoot for victims of sexual violence.

"From what we hear from survivors, it's very hit or miss out there across the state," said Muir, who is the policy director at the Wyoming Coalition Against Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault.

"Even within a county, our advocates might talk about, 'we sure hope Officer A comes out on this call and not Officer B,' which is heartbreaking."

Muir said some survivors would rather forego the criminal justice system than risk interacting with an officer who makes them feel like the assault was their fault.

Laramie's Police Chief Dale Stalder agreed that uncertainty drives low reporting rates.

"We have to do a better job of making sure that victim felt a sense of justice throughout or felt supported," said Stalder. So then that, "victim goes and tells other people that have been victimized by that crime, 'hey it's ok to report.'"

Not every report will end in prosecution, but Stalder wants victims to feel like they've been heard and that their case has been thoroughly investigated. That starts with an understanding that trauma can alter a victim's ability to recount what happened.

"If you report to me that stuff was stolen out of your car, you don't have all those emotions. You've been traumatized to a certain degree, but you don't have the emotions that you have if you got raped," said Stalder.

"With that trauma, your brain does all kinds of different stuff. It confuses and complicates your ability to then tell the story."

Stalder said training on the impacts of trauma helps officers better understand what the victim is experiencing.

But he wants to be clear that successful prosecution isn't contingent on these techniques.

"Trauma-informed capability may give you some better tools, but investigating a rape is no different from investigating a homicide, or burglary or anything else from a putting together the evidence perspective," he said. "It's just providing extra tools to do a better job in that victim-centered way for sexual assaults, I think is valuable."

Valuable enough that Stalder decided to train his entire department, including patrol officers.

The thinking is it's less of a crap-shoot for victims if every officer is trained. But he said that's not happening across the entire state.

"Wyoming is very much controlled at the local level," explained Stalder.

All certified peace officers go through 605 hours of training at the Wyoming Law Enforcement Academy. That includes three hours on sexual assault investigation. They're also required to do 40 hours of additional training every two years. The focus of that training, however, is left up to local agencies.

The Wyoming Peace Officers Standards and Training Commission, or POST, keeps a record of what courses officers are taking.

Wyoming Public Radio requested a list of the training completed by all certified peace officers between 2008 to 2018.

Of the 180,000 courses listed in that report, around one percent focused on sexual assault. And the amount of training varies all across the state.

Step out of the city of Laramie into Albany County, and about half the sheriff's office is trained.

So, why when we know sexual assault is so pervasive and so damaging, does the Albany County Sheriff's Office not require all officers to have additional training?

"You know that's a really good question because it's something that we strive to move forward," said Sheriff Dave O'Malley.

He said increasing the amount of training is a goal, but Albany County has limited resources.

"Our training budget is $22,00 a year and that's for 46 people," said O'Malley. "It's about $8,000 less then it was 10 years ago."

Sending officers out-of-state for training can cost thousands of dollars. There's flights, hotels, and course fees. There's also the overtime pay for whoever covers the shifts while officers are gone.

Larger agencies like the Laramie PD might have an easier time moving folks around to fill shifts, but that's harder for the state's smaller agencies, such as the Albany County Sheriff's Office, with fewer people on staff.

"If we can get it localized, if we can bring it here, then we get more bang for our buck and we can get more people involved," said O'Malley.

Police Chief Dale Stalder said legislation that passed during the 2018 session has started to divert funds from speeding fines to be used for more continued education. He suggested some of that money could be used to bring sexual violence training to more remote parts of the state.

But just because the money is there doesn't mean there'll be interest.

"You have to sell it to your people," said Stalder. "I've got guys who have been investigating crimes and now I'm telling them 'investigate like this.' And they can be resistant.'"

Stalder said pressure from the community helps, like when women in Casper came forward several years ago because they felt reports of sexual violence were being brushed off.

"The police department up there reacted to that perception by really putting in some strong training and policy protocols for investigation of sexual assault cases," explained Stalder.

The POST data shows that in 2018 over 50 officers with the Casper Police Department trained on the trauma-informed approach. Stalder said similar change can happen across Wyoming if everyone speaks up in their community.

Tennessee -- despite what the name might make you think -- was born and raised in the Northeast. She most recently called Vermont home. For the last 15 years she's been making radio -- as a youth radio educator, documentary producer, and now reporter. Her work has aired on Reveal, The Heart, LatinoUSA, Across Women's Lives from PRI, and American RadioWorks. One of her ongoing creative projects is co-producing Wage/Working (a jukebox-based oral history project about workers and income inequality). When she's not reporting, Tennessee likes to go on exploratory running adventures with her mutt Murray.
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