Identity

The Cop Pioneering a New Approach to Reporting and Investigating Sexual Assault

Oregon police officer Carrie Hull has revolutionized the way her department treats survivors of sexual violence. Now her "You Have Options” initiative is rolling out nationwide.

by Sirin Kale
Sep 29 2016, 1:21pm

Detective Carrie Hull. Photo courtesy of subject

"I'm not the most popular person in law enforcement," says Detective Carrie Hull of the Ashland Police Department, Oregon. She's speaking to Broadly down the line from Oregon, where she leads a team pioneering a new way for law enforcement to respond to sexual assault investigations.

Hull's You Have Options initiative has revolutionized how Ashland police respond to sexual assault cases. In 2013—the first year the program ran—the department saw a 103 percent increase in sexual violence reporting. "We were shocked. We'd hoped we'd get like ten percent," Hull explains.

It's long been known that law enforcement historically fails many survivors of sexual violence. Whether it's campus rape or teen sexual assault (as powerfully documented by the recent Netflix documentary Audrie and Daisy), ingrained misogyny, victim-blaming culture, inexperience, and a lack of specialist training conspire to re-traumatize survivors, many of whom never receive justice. Thankfully—thanks to efforts of advocacy groups, the media and forward-thinking police officers such as Detective Hull—the situation is slowly improving.

You Have Options is a survivor-led approach that gives victims of sexual assault a range of options when reporting what happened to them. By reducing the barriers survivors face when pursuing justice, it aims to keep them engaged with law enforcement throughout the process—ultimately securing more convictions. Survivors are given three options: they can lodge an information only report or request a partial or full investigation.

If a victim opts for the first option—an information only report of the crime—no investigative process beyond a victim interview is completed. If they choose the second option, a partial investigation will be launched which may include interviewing of witnesses and collection of evidence. The third option choice is a full investigation, in which police instigate the investigative procedures necessary to determine if probable cause exists for a criminal offense.

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Survivors are promised that nothing will take place without their knowledge or consent, and they can choose to change an information only report to a partial or full investigation at any time, or change a complete investigation to a partial investigation. It's a common sense approach, but one that works—Ashland has seen a steady increase in the amount of people reporting crimes since 2013.

But the path to get You Have Options recognized wasn't always easy for the 36-year-old mother of one. "This isn't the easiest conversation to have!" she jokes. "Look, I'm not out to win any popularity contests. If everyone likes you, you're probably doing something wrong." I've asked Hull whether she encountered much resistance as a female police officer telling entire departments that their approach to sexual violence is fundamentally flawed. She pauses carefully before responding.

"We push a lot of buttons because we think this is important," she goes on. "One colleague that I worked with at Ashland said to me, years ago, 'I hate this, we don't need this.' And then years later he came up to me and said, 'This is actually just the right thing to do.'"

For now, You Have Options is a team of two: Hull and her deputy, Christia Currie. However, as police departments across the US hear of Hull's work, the program continues to grow: Hull tells me, with obvious delight, that Virginia Commonwealth University recently came on board, the first campus police force to do so. To find out more, Broadly spoke with Hull over the phone.

Photo courtesy of Detective Carrie Hull

BROADLY: Thanks for talking with me, Carrie. Can you explain what inspired You Have Options?
Carrie Hull: I originally got into law enforcement with the goal of working in child sexual assault cases. Out of that work I realized that we needed to give adult sexual assault survivors the same special attention and training that we did with the cases involving children.

Was there a particular incident that prompted You Have Options?
Late 2009, we had a series of what were being reported to us as "stranger sexual assaults." But it became clear that—while assaults had happened—they were being reported to us differently from what actually took place. It seemed clear that the problem was with the police. We weren't giving survivors accessible ways to come forward about what happened to them. I saw that, and it really bothered me.

What would be the typical scenario you'd see?
So you'd have someone in a relationship and they'd go to a bar and make out with somebody—so essentially they'd be cheating on their partner—and then out of that they'd be sexually assaulted. Or teenagers who'd go to a party and be drinking or taking drugs, and they'd be assaulted. Commonly in those cases the survivors would say a stranger did the assault, or they'd leave other facts out. And when a district attorney discovered inconsistencies in their account, often the case would fall apart.

Without You Have Options, she wouldn't have come forward—she told us that.

What were the major weaknesses of the pre-existing approach?
So many times, professional colleagues would say, "They should just tell us what really happened." That's ridiculous. Yeah, it's a nice concept, but it's not reality to have this very heavy-handed, high horse police approach. Whereas what we need to be saying is, "Hey, I recognize there's stuff you're not ready to talk about yet, so how about we just talk about what you can today and we can come to the other stuff later?"

Would you be able to give me a case study of how You Have Options transformed the approach?
Sure, so—and this really happened—a woman meets a man in a bar and goes back to his hotel room, and she's married. When she's in the hotel room he sexually assaults her. Without You Have Options, she wouldn't have come forward—she told us that. We made her an assurance that we weren't going to tell anyone until she was ready, because she needed to tell her husband what had happened. Normally, as soon as that happened law enforcement would have started doing interviews, and one of them would have been with her husband, and he'd have found out about it. So you can see why someone like that would not have wanted to come forward.

Read more: When a Woman Is Raped in Rural Alaska, Does Anyone Care?

What's the biggest problem with the system as it is?
For me, the biggest failure of the criminal justice system is the fact that—too often—law enforcement decides whether to take a case forward before they've done any investigation, based solely on an interview with the victim. An interview does not equal an investigation. How can you determine if a crime took place without doing any investigating? Now, every case is fully investigated—if that's what the survivor wants.

How does You Have Options work in practice?
So often survivors would tell me, "I don't know what I want to happen." So now we give them clearly defined options. Option one: you make an information-only report. You don't have to give them your name, you just explain what happened and get given a reference number. The second option is what we call a partial investigation. So we might do a rape kit or speak to witnesses and corroborate stories. The final is a full investigation: It's complete; we follow every lead and hand over the information to prosecutors. The approach is different because it's victim-led, the survivors can change options if they want and they're not being coerced by law enforcement. So often, they'd be pressured by police saying "You should press charges, because he might do this to someone else." That places the burden of preventing future victimization on people who've already been victimized, and it's wrong.

We have detectives that leave our training and they go back and call up survivors they worked with years ago and apologize to them.

It seems so simple—it's almost surprising for me that this didn't exist before.
I agree! There's nothing complicated about it. That's a great compliment, actually. We want this to be so simple there's no reason why people can't do it.

Does the often-negative perception of law enforcement bother you?
I still believe this is one of the best professions in the world. But what I didn't realize when I got into it was how bad we are at this. We're never trained how to handle sexual assault cases correctly. The vast majority of police are amazing and trying to do a good job. Every day I come to work—and I work seven days a week, practically—and I get emails from police officers all over the country hungry for this information and wanting to learn more. We have detectives that leave our training and they go back and call up survivors they worked with years ago and apologize to them. We hear from survivors who thought the experience was going to be horrible, and it wasn't so bad, and they're really glad they interacted with law enforcement. That's amazing.