Ashland police have a startling wish for 2013: They want to see an increase in the number of reported sexual assaults.
It's not that police want more sexual assaults to occur, of course. They want victims to feel more comfortable reporting attacks.
"It takes guts to say we want our reported number to go up," said Ashland Police Department Detective Carrie Hull.
APD is launching a "You Have Options" campaign on Jan. 1, 2013, to let victims know the department has adopted a victim-friendly philosophy for dealing with sexual assaults.
Victims don't have to decide right away whether they want to press charges. They will be given medical help and emergency contraception. And, perhaps most controversially, police won't automatically inform parents when 15- through 17-year-olds report sexual assaults.
"Only 15 to 20 percent of sexual assaults are reported," said Chief Terry Holderness. "Eighty to 85 percent, we never know about. That's a horrible failure rate."
While Ashland has relatively low aggravated assault, robbery and homicide rates, that's not true for rape, he said.
"It's clear that this is our issue," Holderness said, noting that college towns often have relatively high sexual assault rates.
Hull said unlike victims of other crimes, victims of sexual assault hesitate to report the crime because of fear, shame and social stigma.
"People don't fear that they won't be believed if their house was burglarized or if their car was stolen," Hull said.
She said sexual offenders target victims based on how vulnerable and accessible they seem and on their perceived lack of credibility.
"The response from society is, 'What was she doing to allow this to happen?' We say, 'What did the offender do to make the victim vulnerable, accessible and less credible?'" Hull said.
Hull noted that both males and females can be the victims of sexual assault.
Holderness said while society often blames victims of sexual assaults, 90 percent of assaults are by repeat offenders and the average offender has committed 5.8 assaults before being identified.
Police have a better chance of identifying serial offenders if more victims report crimes — even when victims don't want to press charges, Hull said.
"We are telling offenders that there is a stronger chance they will be identified," she said. "Hopefully that will prevent some of the victimization in Ashland."
While police hope for a short-term increase in reported sexual assaults and eventually prosecutions, they hope in the long run the increased reporting will lead to fewer actual sexual assaults as sexual predators are caught, Holderness said.
APD already has had some success in boosting reporting rates by changing some of its practices and reaching out to other partners in Ashland and Jackson County over the last few years.
Reported sexual assaults went from 25 in 2009 to 43 so far this year, Holderness said.
Medical care and on-call nurses for sexual assault victims are available at hospitals, where trained personnel collect evidence. Emergency contraception is available, and victims can be referred to support and advocacy services.
Traditionally, police departments ask sexual assault victims to decide right away whether they want to press charges, Hull said.
APD doesn't press for an immediate decision.
Its approach includes collecting and keeping evidence even if the victim doesn't want to press charges. That way, evidence and the opportunity to identify perpetrators are not lost, Hull said.
"Too often, victims are told what is good for them. We identify options. We never make them choose right away," she said. "The victim controls how much they participate."
Among other actions, APD participates in valleywide symposiums with other agencies on sexual assault, trains bartenders to spot predatory behavior and starts sexual assault awareness training in the middle school years in Ashland.
APD has developed posters and brochures on the issue, and will later debut a website at www.reportingoptions.org.
Holderness said the most controversial aspect of APD's new sexual assault response is that police may not necessarily inform the parents of victims who are 15 to 17 years old.
When a sexual assault occurs, the situation often involves sexual activity, alcohol or drugs. Teens are afraid their parents will find out what they were doing when an assault occurred, Holderness said.
Police can't do formal interviews of sexual assault victims who are under 18 without a parent, but they can help victims get medical help and connect them with advocacy and sexual assault services groups, Hull said.
"This is our only chance of stopping victimization at that age group," she said. "This gets them in the door."
Ultimately, APD's goal is to get victims to discuss sexual assaults with their family members. That could lead to victims having formal interviews with police.
"Then we stand a really good chance at successful prosecution," Hull said.
APD will intervene with victims who are 14 years old or younger, or if the abuser lives in the victim's home, Holderness said.
Ashland City Councilor Greg Lemhouse said that as a parent, he was initially taken aback by APD's decision to not automatically inform parents of reported sexual assaults against 15- to 17-year-olds. But he said he sees the wisdom of the approach.
"As parents, we have to understand their goal is to get people help," Lemhouse said. "Once they get into the system, they will come around. It's on us as parents to create an environment where our children feel comfortable telling us. But if they can't, they can go to APD."
Other councilors who heard a presentation on APD's approach earlier this week said they supported the department.
"It's truly compassionate police work and it's also smart police work," said Councilor Pam Marsh.
Staff reporter Vickie Aldous can be reached at 541-479-8199 or firstname.lastname@example.org.