I’m using my ≤1000 words this week to plug the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting’s excellent examination of LMPD’s treatment of reported rapes. Notice I say “treatment” and not “investigation.” There’s a reason for that.
KyCIR’s new podcast, simply called “Dig,” focuses on a case that begins (as many of these stories do) with a woman drinking at a hotel bar with a man she just met, someone supposedly there on a business trip. She suddenly became disoriented, passed out and woke up in the middle of a sexual assault. She ended up with multiple injuries, including a dislocated tail bone and multiple lacerations in her vagina.
Bodycam footage shows a responding officer calling the victim “hysterical” and immediately divining that the encounter was consensual. Despite the victim’s injuries, her identification of the suspect from a photo lineup, the suspect’s DNA at the scene and eventual admission that he had “contact” with her, the bloody sheets that police never collected and plenty of other circumstantial evidence, no arrest was made. The suspect was never interrogated in person and wasn’t even contacted by police until seven months after the victim’s initial report.
A recording made by LMPD reveals the detective on the case spilling all the details of her nascent investigation to the suspect. The detective shares her opinions on how weak the would-be case would be in court and the gory details of what police hadn’t found yet. Not only that, but she is glibly feeding him defenses that he hadn’t thought of. “We’re not positive that something didn’t happen after she left your room,” she said, unprompted. Sexual assaults, she explained to the suspect, have to be approved by a prosecutor before taking any further steps. The case was closed soon thereafter, with no notice to the victim. Legal Titaness Laura Landenwich filed a civil lawsuit on the victim’s behalf, but that may be the only measure of justice she ever gets.
There’s an irksome question raised by KyCIR’s work, one that should perplex even passive true-crime-show watchers, which is: Are police really trying to catch the bad guys?
A less cynical commentator might observe that, yes, it is possible that someone else got to her that night, and these cases are difficult to prove, and would-be victims do lie sometimes, and, gosh, there’s a lot of crime to keep up with and a whole host of other perfectly good-sounding reasons as to why and how something like this could go without so much as an arrest.
But as the KyCIR report detailed, a whole lot of rapes seem to go unprosecuted, uncharged and unarrested in Louisville. This cannot be simply because the police don’t have enough evidence to secure a conviction. From the early 20th century until now, we have become increasingly willing to let police lie, to let them make arrests immediately, to let them put people in cages for months or even years at a time awaiting trial upon the thinnest of evidence or no evidence at all and without the say-so of a prosecutor. Anyone who has ever spent any time in or around the criminal justice system knows it’s not unusual for young black men to be arrested and jailed for murder in years-old cold cases, based solely upon the word of mentally ill and/or notoriously unreliable jailhouse informants. As far as I can tell, the policy is nearly always arrest first, investigate later.
And since when did police become so frank and forthright with a suspect, whether they have any physical evidence or not? By now, the phenomenon of American police obtaining false confessions from terrified suspects is so well documented as to be beyond cavil. Fifty years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously held that there was no constitutional problem with a police officer lying to a witness during an interrogation. The case of Frazier v. Cupp, which involved police telling one suspect (falsely) that another suspect had murdered someone, was the pace car for the brand of interrogation we’ve seen a lot of in the decades since. That’s what happened in the Central Park Five case; police told five kids that they had snitched on one another. It wasn’t true, but that didn’t matter. It’s what happened to Brendan Dassey in the Netflix series “Making a Murderer,” too. Police fed an entire story about shooting the victim in the head to Dassey, who thought he would get a lighter punishment if he went along with it.
So, feeding a suspect a story is not at all new. But telling them all the weaknesses in your case? Feeding them a defense? I’ve not heard of that before. It represents an all-new approach to policing; one grounded in techniques I am wholly unfamiliar with. It’s suddenly important to cover all the bases, cross all the Ts, check all the boxes? To assume a victim is lying from the get-go? To discuss the weaknesses in your case with a suspect? To vet a case through prosecutors before even laying eyes on the accused? And this method is used in only rape cases?
One would expect quite a different outcome if a detective said to a rape suspect, “Hey dickhead, we’ve got your DNA under her fingernails, she’s got defensive wounds, and we’ve got you on video drugging her drink; you’d better fuckin’ talk or you’re going to prison for a billion years.” This is precisely the approach taken by police in nearly every serious felony for decades, whether they really have that evidence or not. Why would they approach these cases so differently? Why would a white businessman get the benefit of the doubt in a sexual assault case, but a poor kid with a double-digit IQ gets locked up immediately and is made to think he holds the key to his own cell if he’d just “confess” to what someone else did?
LMPD’s bizarre response to the many unanswered questions raised by KyCIR’s report is straight out of the Trump/Bevin playbook: blame the media. The police spokesperson said, essentially, that if police weren’t under a microscope, then more people would report rapes, because they wouldn’t know that the police aren’t serious about catching rapists.
The people of Louisville deserve a better response. Maybe KyCIR can dig one up. •
Dan Canon is a civil rights lawyer and law professor. “Midwesticism”is his short-documentary series about Midwesterners making the world a better place. Watch it at: patreon.com/dancanon.