Magazine article The FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin

Police and the Sexual Assault Examination

Magazine article The FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin

Police and the Sexual Assault Examination

Article excerpt

Suppose you are a detective assigned to investigate a sexual assault complaint. You know that any physical evidence available in the case will play a vital role in determining what happened and whether or not an arrest will occur and later will affect the ability of the prosecutor to file charges and obtain a conviction against the perpetrator. You will work closely with a sexual assault examiner who is a member of a sexual assault response team, rather than a member of your department's forensic evidence team. If this were a case of homicide, robbery, or any other major felony, you would rely on your department's crime scene investigators, medical examiner, and other forensic analysts to provide you with facts needed to make decisions about the case. But this is a sexual assault case. Why are the medical professionals who examine sexual assault victims not members of a law enforcement agency forensic team?


Most law enforcement agencies throughout the United States rely on a variation of the sexual assault response team model. Developed in California, this model involves a coordinated response among various professionals to meet the needs of the assault victim and to collect physical evidence associated with the complaint. Typical members of the team include a victim advocate, a police officer, and a sexual assault examiner. Team members work together to ensure a sensitive, thorough investigation. The advocate provides support to the victim and sets the stage for continued services. The police officer investigates the facts of the case and takes appropriate action. The examiner assesses, documents, and collects forensic evidence and reports obvious pathology or suspicious findings to the victim with a suggestion for follow-up care and referral. Evaluation and diagnosis of pathology extends beyond the scope of the forensic examination. (1)

Currently, two prevalent team models exist. In the hospital-based program, a community hospital maintains responsibility for the administration of the program, including the selection, training, and scheduling of medical personnel involved. In the second model, the community-based program, a nonprofit agency assumes administrative responsibility for the program. Dedicated professionals with unquestionable commitment to the proper treatment and investigation of sexual assault cases support both team models. The primary purpose of the sexual assault examination, however, is forensic in nature. The examination is not intended to provide medical care, which is performed by the emergency department or the victim's physician, nor to substitute for the services provided by a counselor or therapist. The unique purpose of the examination is evidentiary-based, which assumes that law enforcement later may introduce findings of the examination as evidence against a defendant.

All team members play an important role. But, professionals who approach the sexual assault examination with priorities other than the standards required of forensic evidence collection designed to stand up in the court system render a disservice to the victims of sexual assault. This particularly holds true of the sexual assault examiner.


The role of forensic evidence collection and examination traditionally has been assigned to the police. Police departments employ and train personnel in such forensic areas as evidence collection and analysis, fingerprint analysis, and blood-spatter evidence. In cases requiring advanced professional credentials, such as forensic medical pathology, dentistry, or anthropology, the police have employed, or contracted with, professionals for those services. In the area of sexual assault examination, however, the police have not assumed an active role. The reasons for the lack of police involvement in sexual assault examination programs may be found in the history of the development of the programs. …

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