Federal Grant Helps Fund New Illinois Sexual Assault Law

The Illinois Attorney General’s office announced last week a $750,000, three-year grant from the U.S. Department of Justice that will help fund a new program that aims to improve the state's response to sexual assault crimes.

The law goes into effect Jan. 1, 2017, and mandates specialized sexual assault response training for all 911 operators, law enforcement and investigators in Illinois.

“Getting this grant is absolutely critical to our ability to implement the law effectively because everybody’s budgets are strained,” Attorney General Lisa Madigan said. “This will provide us with the resources to make sure that the best practices are getting out there and law enforcement is being trained in them.”

The legislation was initiated by a coalition of advocacy agencies, politicians and law enforcement officials who work to encourage victims to report their cases to police, with the hope that the reports will lead to more successful prosecutions. According to the group, only 5 to 20 percent of victims of sexual assault file reports with the police.

The group attributes the low percentage to the inconsistent and, in some cases, insensitive ways law enforcement react to sexual assault cases.

“Too often in the past when survivors come forward to report a crime, they are not believed, they are blamed, they have not been supported, and in essence they are just re-victimized,” said Madigan. “Once that word gets out to the greater community, they choose not to come forward.”

While sexual assault training is already part of the officer training curriculum, The Illinois Law Enforcement Training and Standards Board will collaborate with the coalition to develop a new program that is more “evidence-based, trauma-informed and victim-centered.” The Department of Justice’s Guidance on Identifying and Preventing Gender Bias in Law Enforcement Response to Sexual Assault will serve as a core foundation for the new rules.  

The updated curriculum will expand the number of training hours for both officers in the academy as well as veterans of the force. It will also include an increased focus on the psychological effects of trauma, which can make recounting details more difficult, according to Kelly Griffith, general counsel of the Illinois Law Enforcement Training and Standards Board.

“The brain works a certain a way that makes it different for us to lay out things chronologically under trauma,” said Griffith. “The impact makes it sound like the victim doesn’t look truthful so we need to go more in-depth in explaining these neurobiological effects.” 

Polly Poskin, executive director of the Illinois Coalition Against Sexual Assault, says the information provided by victims in initial reports is critical for successful prosecutions to proceed. In order for this information to be as clear as possible, she suggests that law enforcement learn how to better react by asking pointed and factual questions during sexual assault investigations. This evidence-based approach can have a calming effect on the victim, she said.    

“A written report can go off track if you start to try to insert questions that shut down the victim, which is often blame or suspicion,” Poskin said. “That’s why this grant for this training program is so important. The ultimate goal is that we increase prosecutions, convictions and make sure justice is served.”