Policing and Prosecuting Sexual Assault in Los Angeles City and County

Project Dates: 2009-present

Funded by the National Institute of Justice (NIJ) the purpose of this study was to document the extent of case attrition in sexual assault cases and to identify the factors that increase the likelihood of case attrition.  We used quantitative data on the outcomes of sexual assaults reported to the LAPD and the LASD from 2005 to 2009, detailed quantitative and qualitative data from case files for a sample of cases reported to the two agencies in 2008, and qualitative data from interviews with detectives and with deputy district attorneys with the Los Angeles District Attorney’s Office who handled sexual assault cases during this time period to pursue five interrelated objectives:  1) to document the extent of case attrition and to identify the stages of the criminal justice process where attrition is most likely to occur; 2) to identify the case complexities and evidentiary factors that affect the likelihood of attrition in sexual assault cases; 3) to identify the predictors of case outcomes in sexual assault cases; 4) to provide a comprehensive analysis of the factors that lead police to unfound the charges in sexual assault cases; and 5) to identify the situations in which sexual assault cases are being cleared by exceptional means.  We also identify the themes that emerged from our interviews with officials in each agency and with sexual assault survivors.

Findings revealed the following: the likelihood that the case would be unfounded, the likelihood the suspect would be arrested, and the odds that charges would be rejected by the district attorney were affected by a mix of case and victim characteristics.  None of these outcomes was affected by the bureau (in the case of unfounding) or agency (in the case of arrest and charge rejection) that investigated the crime; the victim’s race/ethnicity; whether the suspect physically, as well as sexually, assaulted the victim; or the type of resistance offered by the victim. Detective interviews revealed the presence of two approaches to rape victims among law enforcement: “Innocent until proven guilty” and “Guilty until proven innocent.” The pre-arrest screening of nonstranger sexual assault cases at the district attorney’s office is a critical factor behind case attrition, largely because of the pre-filing interview that is mandated with rape victims and the DA’s corroboration requirement that must be met to file charges. Detectives’ statements regarding the decision to arrest indicate that: (1) all will arrest (where possible) in stranger cases; (2) some arrest based on the presence of probable cause regardless of whether the victim and suspect are acquainted; and (3) some—either due to personal biases/preferences or those of their supervisor’s—will never arrest in nonstranger cases, preferring instead to present the case to the district attorney’s office for a filing decision. Interviews with deputy district attorneys uncovered two approaches to sex crimes: those who “Look for corroboration” and those who “Look for reasons to reject.” They related the majority of their decision-making to the likelihood of a conviction and jurors’ preconceived notions of what constitutes rape. While most interviewees mentioned the continued presence of a societal bias against female rape victims, they varied in the extent to which they viewed themselves as responsible for educating jurors and trying cases that meet the legal definition of rape but do not fit the stranger rape stereotype.

Research Staff

Cassia Spohn, PhD
Arizona State University

Katharine Tellis, MSW, PhD
California State University, Los Angeles