The purpose of this project is to better understand police perceptions of sexual assault complainants by assessing their likelihood of questioning a complainant’s credibility and by examining police attitudes toward victims of sexual assault. To advance understanding of these issues, this dissertation (1) expands upon prior research by drawing on a sample of officers from one of the largest metropolitan police departments in the United States and, (2) through the use of framing theory, contributes to the literature by focusing on the attitudes of police toward sexual assault complainants and how these beliefs are shaped by day-to-day experiences.
This dissertation investigates two research questions using a mixed-methods approach. The data come from 400 sexual assault complaints that were reported to the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) and 52 LAPD detective interviews. I quantitatively examine the factors that influence officer perceptions of complainant credibility, focusing on indicators of “real rape,” “genuine” victims, “inappropriate” victim behavior, and “character flaws.” I contextualize this work by examining police attitudes toward sexual assault victims using qualitative data taken from interviews of sex crimes detectives. This research contributes to the broader case processing literature by focusing on victim credibility, a factor consistently found to influence case processing decisions. Moreover, this study contributes to research on the frames officers assign to women who report sexual assault.
Analyses from the quantitative portion of the study confirm that indicators of “real rape,” and complainant “character issues” were key explanatory factors influencing credibility assessments. Regarding qualitative results, three sexual assault victim frames were identified. These frames include depictions of victims as they relate to: (a) the suspect/victim relationship, (b) problematic victim behavior, and (c) age. These three frames indicate that certain types of victims are viewed as problematic.
This dissertation contributes to three broad bodies of literature: law enforcement decision making, law enforcement perceptions of sexual assault victims, and framing theory. This dissertation was able to tap into officer attitudes to shed light on the ways officers treat women who come forward to report sexual assault, providing valuable insight into officer attitudes, credibility assessments, and victim framing.