By Paul Kiefer
The King County Sexual Assault Resource Center (KCSARC) connected more people to therapy, legal support and other services in 2021 than at any other point in the past five years, even as law enforcement agencies referred fewer sexual assault cases to the King County Prosecutor’s Office.
In 2021, the prosecutor’s special assault unit, which handles sexual assaults and child abuse, filed 485 charges; about 85 percent of those charges were for sex crimes. In the same year, more than 5,000 people sought help from KCSARC, compared to 4,905 in 2019. In the past five years, the number of people seeking support from KCSARC rose by 23 percent.
KCSARC Director Mary Ellen Stone says the mismatch points to a growing problem in King County’s law enforcement agencies, including the Seattle Police Department: With fewer detectives to investigate sexual assaults and a growing backlog of cases, police have left more cases on hold, or declined to investigate reported assaults, than at any other point in the past decade. For some victims, she said, the prospect of delays and dead ends is enough to dissuade them from reporting an assault. “Our system relies on people saying, ‘this happened to me, and I want to make sure it doesn’t happen again,'” she said. “We aren’t making people feel like that’s worthwhile.”
The drop in the number of sexual assault referrals began early in the pandemic, when police departments across the county began losing officers and focusing their resources on patrol instead of investigative units. Since the spring of 2020, the number of sexual assaults the Seattle Police Department’s referred to the prosecutor’s office fell by a quarter compared to the previous five-year average; the King County Sheriff’s Office’s average monthly referrals fell by roughly 20 percent.
Sergeant Jason Escobar heads the special assault unit, which investigates sex crimes and child abuse, at the King County Sheriff’s Office. He says his team of detectives has shrunk by nearly half since the start of the pandemic. As of this week, Escobar has only five detectives to investigate sexual assaults, and four vacant positions; he added that one of his detectives may soon leave because they haven’t complied with the department’s vaccination requirement.
“As it is, our remaining detectives are carrying heavier caseloads,” he said. “Even then, some of the reports we receive—if the victim isn’t a child, or if someone isn’t in immediate danger or in the hospital—we have to hold until we can find a chance to assign them. If someone reports an assault that happened months or years ago, we will still assign that case to a detective, but it’s not going to be right away.” Escobar assigned 30 fewer cases to his detectives in 2021 than in 2020, and his unit’s backlog of unassigned cases is growing.
Escobar said his unit would be able to investigate more cases if he could bring on more detectives. For now, the sheriff’s office isn’t letting him bring in new officers from patrol units because of the staffing shortage. But Escobar sees another hurdle on the horizon: as the King County Superior Court begins holding trials that the pandemic delayed, some of his detectives will need to split their time between giving testimony in court and working on investigations. The court currently has a backlog of more than 400 sexual assault cases; the average age of the victims of those cases is 16.
During the pandemic, according to Stone, victims of sexual assault increasingly report that police departments never communicated with them before deciding to drop their case.
Meanwhile, Stone said, prosecutors resolve the majority of sexual assault cases by allowing defendants to plead guilty to a lesser charge. According to the King County Prosecutor’s Office, 78 percent of sexual assault cases were resolved with a plea agreement between 2019 and 2021, often to a lesser charge. “When people are treated like they’re just a number, when law enforcement don’t tell them about the status of their case or choose not to investigate it, when the case is being pled down by the prosecutor to an unrecognizable crime, why should they bother coming forward at all?” she asked.
King County Prosecutor’s Office spokesman Casey McNerthney says that his office rarely pleas down sexual assault charges without first reaching an agreement with the victim, and that prosecutors speak to survivor advocates and victims before offering plea deals. Plea deals are more common, he noted, when more time elapses between an assault and prosecution. McNerthney added that while his office filed fewer sexual assault charges in 2020 and 2021 than it did in 2019, before the pandemic, prosecutors have filed charges in roughly the same percentage of the cases they receive as they did before the pandemic: About a third.