Connecting state and local government leaders
The Forsyth County, North Carolina, District Attorney’s office is working with the higher education community to dispel myths and protect victims.
It is no secret that we have a problem on college campuses. Far too many college students become victims of sexual assault at the very place they should feel safest. It is difficult to say that this problem has not always been there. Instead, it is more likely that we are just hearing about it more often given the vast forms of media we are plugged into these days. Either way, this is a case where additional attention can and should lead to positive changes in the way we as prosecutors, as well as campus officials, handle campus-related sexual assaults.
As prosecutors, we are most successful when we take a coordinated approach to criminal justice. In this case, it is necessary to work with local law enforcement and advocates, as well as campus law enforcement and student advocates.
The distinction is important, as pointed out by Chief Assistant District Attorney Jennifer Martin in the Forsyth County District Attorney’s Office in North Carolina. Martin and her colleagues, including District Attorney Jim O’Neill, recognized the need for uniformity and consistency in the investigation of these cases so that they could make the best decisions and present the best cases in court.
To that end, the District Attorney’s Office met with representatives from the various colleges and universities in the county and requested that instead of each campus law enforcement agency conducting its own investigation, the Winston-Salem Police Department, the largest law enforcement agency in the county, would conduct all investigations and present the cases to the District Attorney for review.
It was not a lack of faith that led to this request, but rather the recognition that this larger agency had more resources, better trained and specialized investigators, and additional forensic and digital evidence collection techniques than any campus police agency. In addition, this process removed the potential conflict of interest that may arise when an employee of the college or university is tasked with investigating and reporting to campus officials the allegation of a crime that must be reported pursuant to federal law.
Campus law enforcement agents are encouraged to assist the city police department, as they are generally more in tune with the campus infrastructure and can facilitate interviews and play a support role for student victims and witnesses.
In order for this collaboration to work, however, prosecutors need to dispel some common misconceptions. At a recent symposium, in which the North Carolina Conference of District Attorneys partnered with the National District Attorneys Association (NDAA), college and university officials, law enforcement agents and prosecutors from across the state gathered to strategize about how they can work together to help these victims.
The most disturbing revelation was that college officials, charged with working with student victims and advising them of their right to report the sexual assault to outside law enforcement, often advise these students that working with the police and prosecutors will be time consuming and onerous. While the criminal justice system does work slowly at times, it is important for these officials to paint an accurate portrait of what will happen if the victim chooses to pursue a criminal case.
Prosecutors must be upfront about the process, including timeframe, burden of proof at trial, trauma of cross-examination, and much more. But they must also emphasize that prosecutors and advocates within DA’s offices will be with them every step of the way, preparing and protecting them whenever possible.
More trainings like the one held by the North Carolina Conference of District Attorneys are vital to making sure everyone who comes into contact with student victims of sexual assault treat them in an informed and appropriate manner.
Additionally, developing better lines of communication will not only improve the quality of the investigation and prosecution of a criminal case, but it will also reveal what so many participants at the symposium in North Carolina expressed—that we all play a part in protecting and supporting our students, and working together is the best way to accomplish that goal.