Two University of Minnesota Duluth students say that when they reported they were sexually assaulted to campus police, they felt that police discouraged them from pressing charges. In a February 2010 case, the investigator wrote in his report that he doubted the woman reporting a rape was telling the truth. After he emphasized to her the negative effect the charges would have on the man she was accusing, she recanted her story. Later, she told a different officer that her original account was the truth.
In the other case, from fall 2011, the woman reporting sexual assault said the officer told her “he doesn’t think the case would go very far because I didn’t say no forcefully.”
She, too, ended up deciding not to press charges.
It is “never appropriate” to discourage victims from pressing charges, said Stephen Thompson, the sexual aggression services director at Central Michigan University.
Thompson has conducted more than 2,000 trainings and presentations on sexual assault prevention at government agencies and universities, including at UMD. He reviewed police reports from the two cases at the request of the Statesman reporters.
“In both cases, the women said ‘stop,’ and certainly in law enforcement training that’s all you’ve got to do,” Thompson said.
As for whether the case should move forward, he said: “It’s not up to law enforcement to decide that, it’s up to an attorney.”
Lt. Sean Huls, who was interim director of the UMD Police Department until July 9, said his department has never encouraged a sexual assault victim to drop charges.
“If that is being accused, that would be false,” Huls said. “There would be no benefit to UMD to discourage victims.”
According to a UMD police report:
“Amber” told Officer Jacob Willis of the UMD Police Department that she had gone to a man’s apartment after meeting him at a friend’s apartment that night. (Amber’s real name has been withheld from the article.)
She said they started making out, but she told him she didn’t want it to go any farther. She said she went to sleep, and when she woke up he was on top of her having sex with her. She said she told him to stop but he kept going, and she believed he ejaculated inside her without using a condom.
According to a witness quoted in the police report, both Amber and the man she was with were under the influence of alcohol and marijuana.
After Amber and the suspect were interviewed, Officer Erik Blair interviewed a witness described as a friend of Amber’s who told Blair that the victim had been flirting with the alleged perpetrator all night.
According to police records, the witness said, “(Amber) is always like that. ... She’ll be OK with something and then she’ll freak out later.”
The witness was also quoted as saying that she didn’t know Amber well and they had only socialized together twice.
Officer Mike Brostrom of the UMD Police Department, who had been present for the interview with the witness, spoke to Amber in a meeting room in the Darland Administration Building.
As Amber described the alleged assault, Brostrom noted in his report that she wouldn’t look at him. She was playing with something on the table, her hair was covering her face, and she spoke softly, he wrote.
“I have been to a specialized training course on interview and interrogation,” Brostrom wrote. “Based on her body language and the things she was telling me, I felt her statements specifically about the time when she was having sex with (the alleged perpetrator) to be un-truthful.”
Brostrom wrote that he told Amber that because of her testimony, he would likely charge the suspect with a crime.
“I told her that if he was convicted, a crime like this would follow him around for the rest of his life,” Brostrom wrote. “I added that the serious nature of this crime would affect his day-to-day life on nearly every level. I said that I knew she was a good person and she wouldn’t want something like this to happen to someone who didn’t do a bad thing. I told her again that we are all human and we make mistakes. I assured her that no one would pass judgment on her for changing her statements ... At about 35:10 minutes into the interview, (Amber) came out and said ‘It was consensual.’ ”
Brostrom wrote that at this point Amber became even more “emotionally upset.”
“Her head hung even lower and she began to sob harder,” Brostrom wrote. “She could not speak some of the time, only nod her head yes and no to my questions.”
Brostrom wrote that the next day, he met with the man Amber had accused of assaulting her and told him “about the new information I had learned from (Amber). He was very relieved and thanked me for helping him in this situation.”
Stephen Thompson said that he thought this was “irregular.”
“When the police officer indicated to the offender that there was some information that had come out and basically the story had changed, that’s not normal with law enforcement,” Thompson said. “I would think that’s confidential.”
About a month later, on March 28, Officer Willis met with Amber to follow up. Willis wrote in his report that approximately four minutes into the interview, he asked Amber what she told her friend after the incident.
“She replied: ‘That I was raped,’” Willis wrote. “I asked (Amber) why she told him this, and she said: ‘Because I was.’ (Amber) then began to cry. (Amber) said that she only told Ofc. Brostrom that it was consensual because he told her that (the alleged perpetrator) would go to prison.”
VICTIMS OFTEN ‘CAN’T MAKE EYE CONTACT’
Several experts reviewed Amber’s case for the the Statesman, and questioned the UMD Police Department’s handling of the investigation.
Alisha Blazevic, a sexual assault nurse examiner at the Program for Aid to Victims of Sexual Assault (PAVSA), didn’t review the entire case but said Officer Brostrom wrongly interpreted the alleged victim’s body language as a sign of being untruthful. It may have indicated the opposite, she said.
“(Prosecutors often say) look at how this person felt in the moment this just happened to them. They can’t make eye contact with a male police officer who’s interviewing them,” Blazevic said.
Gary Bjorklund, head of the criminal division for the St. Louis County Attorney’s Office, also said that kind of behavior is used as evidence by prosecutors.
“They go into a shell,” he said. “A lot of times, the victims, they will respond in a way where they are very, very – covering themselves, they’re embarrassed and the nature of their body language can tell a lot.”
Bjorklund said police shouldn’t inject their opinion when interviewing a person reporting a sexual assault.
“We typically ... tell law enforcement: Don’t put your opinion on people’s credibility into reports. ... Their opinion in court is not relevant,” he said.
The crime of sexual assault, Bjorklund said, doesn’t just follow the alleged perpetrator.
“The officer talked about, you know, false allegations can have a lifelong effect on a suspect,” he said. “Well, sexual assault, the effects of that can have a lifelong effect upon a victim.”
Brostrom did not respond to an email and his superior, UMDPD Director Scott Drewlo, said he was declining to comment for the article. Questions about the incident were referred to Lt. Huls, who was then interim director of the Police Department. Huls said he wouldn’t question Brostrom’s handling of the investigation.
“I can speak specifically that Officer Brostrom has been to intensive interrogation and investigation training where he is trained to pick up on cues of untruthfulness,” Huls said. “I can’t speak for the specifics of this, but generally whenever we interview sexual assault victims it’s victim-centered; we’re empathetic.” He acknowledged that Brostrom’s line of questioning is not typical in a sexual assault case.
“It is not typical to question a victim’s story, but each case is unique,” he said. “I was not present, so I don’t know why the questioning took the course it did.”
Capt. Scott Drewlo, the new director of UMDPD, responded for the article as well. He was not present at the time of the case.
“Officers are kind of trained to be objective finders of fact,” Drewlo said. “I don’t want to say that line of questioning is out of line, but there are other ways that you can interview people and still accomplish that role of being an objective finder of fact.”
Personnel records provided by UMD show that Brostrom, who was hired by UMD in 2004, completed a sexual assault training course in November 2010, several months after he conducted the investigation of Amber. There is no apparent record of him taking a previous course while at UMD.
WHEN ‘NO’ WASN’T ENOUGH
On Oct. 31, 2011, “Marissa” (also a pseudonym), a UMD freshman, told police she had been sexually assaulted.
But she told Statesman reporters she felt that police talked her out of pressing charges in the incident.
“I had felt like it was just a waste of all that stress of telling people ... to just end up dropping the charges,” she said. “And I didn’t even end up getting any sense of relief from it; it’s just worse than when it started.”
In the incident, which occurred Sept. 22, Marissa said she walked back to her apartment with a male classmate. He asked to come in for some food, and she agreed. She said that she had one drink but he got “pretty drunk.”
The two have differing accounts of what happened next.
He told police they were kissing and she let him penetrate her with his fingers. According to the police report, he said she “would tell him to stop and then he would start kissing her again, and then she would ‘go with it.’” Marissa, according to the report, said the man penetrated her with his fingers, but “she kept telling him to stop, and (the man) was telling her, ‘You know you want me to do this,’ and (Marissa) didn’t really do anything to make (the alleged perpetrator) stop.”
In the report, Marissa was quoted as saying that the man took off her pants, exposed himself and pulled her on top of him, and she tried to pull away three times. She said she then told him she was going to scream, and he let her go.
Marissa left out some details in her first account of the ordeal, which Bjorklund said is common with sexual assault victims.
“Initially on a lot of times they don’t give out the details that they will later on,” he said.
After Marissa contacted police, Officer Erik Blair of the UMD Police Department interviewed her at her apartment.
Blair wrote in his report: “I then asked (Marissa) how she said no and what her reason was. ... I again asked if she remembered how she told (the alleged perpetrator) to stop. (Marissa) stated she said ‘Just stop, come on, just stop,’ but never did anything about it.”
Blair noted in the report that the first time Marissa said no, it wasn’t forceful.
“The police officer asked me how I said ‘No,’” Marissa said in an interview for this article. “He told me that he’s not telling me what to do, but he doesn’t think that the case would go very far because I didn’t say no forcefully. So because of that ... I called the police station and I was like, ‘Drop the charges.’ I called (the Office of) Student Conduct and I told them to drop the charges.”
How forcefully the word “no” is stated is irrelevant, said Thompson, the sexual aggression services director at Central Michigan University.
“‘No’ is enough,” he said.
Thompson said that with inexperienced law enforcement officers, the emphasis is often on how much the alleged victim says no.
In his own investigations, Thompson said, the emphasis is on, “Did she scream yes?” Marissa said she said no several times. She also said she tried multiple times to pull away.
“I was just telling him, ‘Stop, stop, stop,’ you know, over and over and over,” Marissa said. “And he’s like, ‘I know you want me to do this.’”
Blair returned one email and phone call to comment on the case, but after speaking with his superiors stopped responding. Capt. Drewlo said that Blair was made aware of his option to comment. Drewlo responded for this case as well, although he wasn’t employed by UMD at the time. Drewlo said there may have been a better way to frame the question, but the forceful component is important.
“It is a necessary question that the prosecutors like to have,” he said.
Gary Bjorklund also commented on this case, saying “Officers should not ... discourage victims from prosecuting; the same token is I think they need to have some level of candor with them, so it’s a fine line.”
In both that case and the February 2010 case, Drewlo said that it would have been helpful to have a PAVSA advocate involved to “shepherd the case” and guide communication with the victim. He hopes to have this system in place in the future.
FRIENDS ‘HATE ME NOW’ After Amber reported her alleged assault, she said her friends didn’t believe her.
According to the police report, she said that her mutual friends with the alleged perpetrator “all said that it wasn’t something that he would do, and that they didn’t believe her. (Amber) said she didn’t want these friends to hate her.”
Marissa said the same thing happened to her. The alleged perpetrator told her friends he had been questioned by police, she said.
“All of my old friends hate me now,” Marissa said. “They all think that I just ran around crying wolf.”
Marissa said she felt conflicted – both relieved and disappointed – when she dropped the charges.
“This kind of screwed me up a little bit, and he shouldn’t just get to get away with that,” she said. “But I guess it doesn’t really matter what I want at this point.”
Find more on this investigation: Surveys reveal big gap in sexual assault reporting at UMD UMD changing some policies on how it handles sex assaults No sanctions in 14 years No one is immune: A former UMD student’s story of sexual assault
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