UVA crime: Bill would yank big cases from campus cops
When a serious crime occurs on campus, who should investigate? A bill making its way through the Virginia legislature would strip campus police departments of their authority over murder and rape investigations, and would require local police to take the lead–- something some victim advocates believe would result in more thorough investigations of the most serious crimes.
"In my mind, the local police are highly trained–- they have a Special Victims Unit, have people dedicated to that particular type of task," says sexual assault victim advocate Susan Russell, founder of the website uvavictimsofrape.com and a driving force behind the bill. Campus police, with their typically smaller staffs, she says, remain well-suited for leading investigations into the more common crimes reported on campuses: theft, simple assault, and trespassing.
Russell, who helped write the bill now known as HB2490, found a sponsor in Delegate Paula Miller (D-Norfolk). The bill will go to vote on Friday, February 4 in the Militia, Police and Public Safety Committee, and if it passes, will proceed to the House floor.
Russell has personal experience with campus rape investigations. As detailed in the Hook's November 2004 cover story, "How UVA turns its back on rape," her daughter, Kathryn Russell, reported getting raped by a fellow student earlier that year at UVA. The alleged assailant was never criminally prosecuted and was permitted to stay at school. Kathryn transferred, and in 2009, her story was the subject of an extensive investigative report on the handling of campus sexual assault by the Center for Public Integrity.
Another high-profile case involved Liz Seccuro, who was raped in a UVA fraternity house back in 1984 and whose assailant pleaded guilty to aggravated sexual assault in 2006 after apologizing for his crime. Seccuro claims that she too suffered from a UVA administration that, as she alleges in a new book, Crash into Me, didn't take the crime seriously. She has long maintained University authorities told her that because the incident took place on University property, local police had no jurisdiction. (But as she found out two decades later, when Charlottesville police agreed to investigate, that was never true.)
Russell asserts that in both her own daughter's and Seccuro's cases, the proposed law would have resulted in a more thorough investigation and a better chance at a successful prosecution. While legislative watchdog Waldo Jaquith calls it a "sadly necessary step," not all victim advocates support the bill as it's written.
S. Daniel Carter of the nonprofit organization Security on Campus agrees that local police should lead murder investigations, but he disagrees they should take charge of all rape cases.
"We feel it's reasonable to train and equip campus police to investigate sexual assault because it's relatively frequent," says Carter, whose nonprofit seeks an amendment that would leave campus police leading sexual assault investigations with input and assistance from local police. (The issue of campus crime is also being considered at the federal level with the Campus Sexual Violence Elimination Act, which would force colleges and universities to more clearly define their sexual assault policies and expand student education on domestic and other types of violence.)
Russell says she'd be willing to consider such an amendment if it would help the bill pass–- and as long as local police departments are notified in every case so they can make their resources available. Whatever happens, she feels today's victims will be better served than her own daughter was seven years ago.
"You have to hope that when something bad happens to you, you can turn it around and help someone else," she says.