UVA crime: Bill would yank big cases from campus cops

news-uvagardenwsusankathrynrussellSusan Russell began advocating soon after her daughter reported getting raped at UVA in 2004.
FILE PHOTOS BY COURTENEY STUART, HAWES SPENCER

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.

15 comments

I have always believed that the UVA administration is incompetent, and indifferent to the beliefs of Virginia residents. I am really astounded to read that UVA police does not report to the Commonwealth law enforcement authorities. Now I know why the problems exist. And to boot, the Legislature (or Govenor) needs to revoke UVA authority to set salaries of its professional staff. The averages posted last year for professors is COMPLETELY out of line with other State averages and its individual citizens.

Is there any chance that the local police would devote any real resources to this issue? I am not currently familiar with Charlottesville. Reading The Hook and many of the local papers looks like the local culture is a lot of blaming the victim, bemoaning the good old days when women werent allowed out, and advising women to travel in packs for safety. What about the culture of the local police force? This publication has talked about the police frolics (boom boom parking)at a local farm that was a crime scene, there is a lot of talking on especially this forum (from GB an x officer) about local police evading the law successfully. They certainly werent too worried about previous rapes. Why would the police change now? Is anyone looking at equipping/ the police to deal with issue? If there is, why cant they devote any resources to the crimes against women that have already been committed.

This would be a splendid idea. The problem with UVa police is that unlike the city and county forces who must answer to the Commonwealth Attorney's office, they only have the University administration, people not versed in the law.
A prosecutor is interested in whether or not a crime was committed, and whether or not their is enough evidence to bring a case to trial. University administrators on the other hand may be more interested in smoothing things over, handling it in-house.
That is totally inappropriate in the case of a felony. University officials should have no input in whether or not charges are brought for a crime.
The Liz Securro case is a prime example. She contacted the University Police and the Dean of Students Office, who failed to tell her that since the alleged rape occurred in a fraternity house offcampus it was under the jurisdiction of the Charlottesville Police. Only when she contacted Chief Tim Longo was she able to obtain justice.
It might even be better to disband the separate UVa police force and have units of the City and/or County whose "beat" is University property, and who would answer to Dave Chapman or Denise Lunsford and not some dean.

First off, let me say this... I would prefer the Virginia State Police come in and investigate any serious crime such as rape and murder at the University of Virginia. But then of course we would have the debate that it appears the VSP hasn't accomplished much in the Morgan Harrington abduction and murder. This is not true. They have done wonders with what little they have had to work with so far. One of the biggest problems in this abduction and murder was the fact that the John Paul Jones arena and surrounding parking lots were not declared a "crime scene" for a very long time.

As far as "GB, the x officer", I feel Charlottesville and Albemarle County are blessed to have a vast majority of decent hard working and capable officers. This includes the Virginia State Police troopers and investigators that are assigned to Albemarle County. Let there be no mistake though, the rookies are playing havoc with this opinion of mine lately. Maybe the chiefs will wise up someday soon. But getting back to the point, I still think a small band of truly rogue cops should not tarnish the image or accomplishments of all.

The proposed change in wording to HB2490, which will debated on Friday in Richmond, would state:

"The chief law enforcement officer of a public or private institution of higher education, or his designee, shall immediately notify the local law enforcement agency or Virginia State Police of the locality in which the institution of higher education is located of (i) the death of any person on the property of the institution when such person is medically unattended and (ii) any report alleging that a rape or sexual assault has occurred on the property of the institution. Upon notification, the local law enforcement agency or State Police may, at the request of campus police or the victim, assume responsibility for leading the investigation. The campus police department and all other employees of the institution of higher education shall cooperate with the local law enforcement agency or State Police in conducting the investigation and shall provide any assistance requested by such agencies."

So breaking this down, the bill:

1. Requires local agencies or State Police to be notified of an unattended death or sexual assault.
2. Once the notification has been made to the local department, campus police OR the victim can request that the local department be the lead in the investigation.
3. Campus police and all other employees must cooperate with local law enforcement and provide any help/info deemed necessary.

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Many people living in the Commonwealth, to include most lawmakers, are under the assumption that local law enforcement has the jurisdiction to investigate any crime that occurs on a college campus. Unfortunately, that assumption is wrong. Campus police have jurisdictional rights for dormitories and classroom buildings. Local law enforcement may be called in to assist, but unless the University or college transfers jurisdiction to them, campus police retain jurisdiction.

This bill would change that. Whenever a felony crime occurs on campus property, the local law enforcement would be called and jurisdiction could transfer because of the nature of the crime - if either the campus police or the victim requested that the local department take the lead. Universities should welcome this clause as it would relieve them of the scrutiny that exists during the the prosecution of these crimes.

This bill is not meant to demean the hardworking campus police, but to aid them. It allows the crime to also be investigated by the local police, who are highly trained and staffed to handle crimes of this magnitude.

Why this bill? Because as the HOOK repeatedly reports, campus police tend to turn a blind eye to campus rape crimes. They treat them as administrative matters. Rape is a felony crime and should be investigated and handled as a felony crime - and women's groups should applaud this new bill as a breakthrough in campus sexual assault reporting.

And just to get the facts on my daughter's case right, she wanted to press charges but the campus police improperly investigated and poorly documented her case and as a result, the Commonwealth Attorney did not have all the facts presented to him to make a proper decision about accepting the case for prosecution. He could have sent the case back for further review, knowing the documentation was lacking, but he chose not to do so. The university refused to release jurisdiction to the local police so that they could investigate the rape. The bottom line is that my daughter's rapist was allowed to go unprosecuted - and 6 months later, he raped another coed and even though he was found guilty by a UVA Sexual Assault Board, he was allowed to remain on campus. If the local law enforcement had been able to properly investigate the case right after it was reported to the UVA campus police, that 2nd coed would not have been raped. HB2490 would allow for both agencies, campus police and local law enforcement, to work TOGETHER to investigate any alleged rape case, thereby insuring that the victim has the best possible resources working for her when reporting this felony crime. It would also protect the accused, knowing that the facts would be properly documented and thereby reduce the number of false accusations.

If you want to show support for HB2490, please send an email by Thursday evening to the bill sponsor, Delegate Paula Miller, at DelPMiller@house.virginia.gov.

Hollowboy says: This would be a splendid idea. The problem with UVa police is that unlike the city and county forces who must answer to the Commonwealth Attorney's office, they only have the University administration, people not versed in the law
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Uh, hello, I think the admin is quite versed in the law. Why do you think they have been able to dance around these issues to begin with? And doesn't UVA have a LAW school? It is because they are well versed in the law they have been unable to be held accountable for the crimes committed on campus or involving students.

Definately take all crime out of UVA's hands and put it in the VSP hands. I don't even know if the local LE can pull themselves away from the badge bunnies long enough to do their jobs.

Courtney,

Thank you for keeping these stories about crimes against women to light. Without education and awareness, change will never come.

Please keep up with these stories. They give me hope that it will make a difference to future students.

I did not mean that the UVa administration did not know the law. Its that they chose in many cases not to treat sexual assault as a crime, instead handling as a school disciplinary issue, like cheating on a test. Which often meant little or nothing was done.

The bill was heard before a subcommittee of the Committee on Militia, Police, and Public Safety this morning at the General Assembly in Richmond and the subcommittee unanimously recommended reporting the bill to the full committee. After lengthy discussion in committee, the bill was referred to the Virginia State Crime Commission. The Commission will review the bill, its recommendations, language, jurisdictional issues, victims rights issues, and work with Delegate Miller to come up with comprehensive language that will make our campuses safer and ensure that victims have a strong voice in the process.

Thanks Susan for all your work on this, and for keeping us informed. Hopefully all states will follow, I know other college towns are dealing with this same issue...UVa is not unique, it's just that it's here, and this is the news we read.

Thank You, Susan!

Great. There's a possibility of far fewer foul-ups by fake cops with a money-leaching university's interests at stake.

GSOE I actually agree with you here. However, do you think that young officers grow into the job, or do you think they come in with a "bad" or "good" disposition? The state police have there own issues. I agree with the overall "goodness" of the police, but the younger ones do seem to be more "aggressive."

A young female PVCC student was attacked on the corner in September by a guy she had met earlier in mellow Mushroom trying to get her to go back to Rugby Road with her. She escaped his rape attempt behind the Clark statue - but with a huge black eye and three broken ribs.

She describes her attacker as a "UVA frat boy." Therefore, UVA cops and the local media covered the story up. This is how this place works. Has for a long time.

THANK YOU, Susan!

And just yesterday the Cavalier Daily had a story about a male UVa student who was assaulted on 15th St by 4 men he told the police he thought were involved with frat rush.
They took his wallet and cell phone. He found his wallet on the ground but not his phone. Honor charges for stealing, anyone?
Yet they like to pretend that it is only the "townies" that ever commit crimes against UVa students.