VOL. 113 | NO. 70 | Thursday, April 8, 1999
By STACEY PETSCHAUER
New initiative brings together local groups
to reduce the number of sexual assaults
By STACEY PETSCHAUER
The Daily News
Although offense rates have been decreasing steadily for many types of crimes in recent years, sexual assault is one crime that refuses to adjust to the trend.
And, Memphis consistently has some of the highest numbers of sexual assaults among cities with populations between 500,000 and 1 million people, said Richard Janikowski, associate professor at the University of Memphis and principle investigator on a project aimed at reducing sexual assault incidents in this area.
The project, called the Strategic Approaches to Community Safety Initiative, or SACSI, was developed by the U.S. Department of Justice to find new approaches for fighting specific types of crimes through the collaboration of various local agencies.
The program is being piloted in five U.S. cities, including Memphis.
"In conjunction with local universities, each site has a research partner," said Christopher Jones, an attorney with the Department of Justice and Memphis project coordinator.
"For example, here in Memphis, we are partnered with the University of Memphis and the University of Tennessee-Memphis, along with practitioners from all realms of law enforcement and community agencies.
"We are basically working together to develop interventions that will be able to not only reduce numbers but actually develop a process that will allow us to come up with ways to address crime problems so that, frankly, they wont be problems anymore," Jones said.
The project involves more than number crunching and report writing, he said, because it focuses on practical results and cooperation.
"Its very easy to have folks gather data and then write a report that sits on a shelf somewhere, but thats not what this is about," he said.
"What its about is taking the data and being able to analyze that data so that those who are on the streets every day can use that information to their best advantage."
A core group is working on the SACSI project, which includes the research team and representatives from the police department, juvenile court, city administration, Sexual Assault Resource Center, other local agencies and the community at-large.
This group is what makes the project unique, because researchers work alongside practitioners to collect and analyze data, and everyone collaborates to find solutions, Janikowski said.
"What is innovative about this program is that it really is a partnership between researchers and practitioners," he said. "So often researchers may go out and gather some findings, but that often is not translated over to the practitioners, and the practitioners are doing something, but no one is evaluating whether its working or not."
Veronica Coleman, U.S. attorney for the Western District of Tennessee, called the initial group together to brainstorm about crimes that most needed to be addressed in the Memphis area.
"The consensus was clearly that sexual assault was a problem," Coleman said. "We went around the table and talked about it.
"It was unanimously decided that, as complex a problem as it appeared to be, we felt if we had the opportunity to take on a different type of initiative, this was the problem we wanted to tackle."
Now, nearly 18 months into the two-year pilot program, Coleman said the group is ready to begin looking at specific geographic areas to try some interventions.
"Well take a look at what I hope to be some creative ways of addressing the problem," Coleman said.
"We also are committed that, even beyond the pilot, the partnerships and collaboratives that have developed will continue, no matter the original timeline."
The research team has been working specifically with data collected by the police department, the Sexual Assault Resource Center and other agencies, Janikowski said.
"Were actually able to capture that data and analyze it in a number of different ways," he said.
"For example, with the police department data, one of the things weve been able to identify is sexual assault involving automobiles."
By looking at that type of data, the team has been able to develop a better picture of how those types of sexual assaults occur, what kinds of relationships exist between offenders and victims, and what types of offenses most often occur.
"By being able to capture that kind of information, we can begin thinking through strategies for prevention and intervention, because a good part of the project is focused on the idea of being able to prevent incidents," Janikowski said.
The core group is looking at five types of responses to sexual assault crimes: preventing the offenses, increasing the likelihood of arresting offenders, decreasing repeat offenses, developing mechanisms that aid in prosecuting offenders and preventing re-victimization.
To develop these types of responses, the research team has been looking at data to identify "situational typologies," which describe the contexts in which sexual assaults can occur.
Examples of these typologies are opportunistic assaults, in which the offender sees an opportunity and takes advantage of it rather than thinking it through beforehand, and predatory assaults, in which the offender actually goes out with a target in mind.
Interventions can involve Crime Prevention through Environmental Design, which deals with issues such as lighting, placement of public telephones and bush-trimming.
Other intervention techniques might involve using community police officers for informational purposes, such as getting the word out about sexual assault danger spots, or increasing directed patrol in certain areas.
One of the major goals of SACSI has been to successfully form collaborations and encourage the "morphing of roles," Coleman said.
For example, a police officer, who traditionally is in the mode of apprehend, arrest and investigate, becomes more aware of a research/data-driven approach to fighting crime.
Likewise, the researcher is pulled outside the academic environment to assess events as they are occurring rather than after the fact.
Coleman said it affects the role of federal prosecutors as well, by allowing them to become more strategically oriented in addressing certain types of crimes.
In many ways, SACSI follows guidelines established through a Boston project that addressed juvenile homicide, Janikowski said.
In that city, researchers at Harvard University and the Kennedy School of Government partnered with the police department, U.S. attorneys office and community representatives and used research to determine a series of interventions.
They discovered that almost every one of the 30 to 35 juvenile homicides that were occurring each year were gang-related.
Since the group launched its intervention programs three years ago, only one juvenile homicide has occurred in the area, Janikowski said.
Mary Durham, a member of Memphis core committee who has worked with sexual assault victims in the past, said she believes the collaborative methods being used by the group will make a difference in the number of sex crimes that occur in the city.
"For one thing, it helps everyone be accountable of what they do and how they do it, which perhaps would not only increase the care and the attention that rape victims get but also possibly increase prosecutions and encourage better investigation," Durham said.
"This is such a private crime. Its very hard sometimes to bring to court, but if people work together, we can achieve more in this area and make a difference."
Coleman said a personal goal she has set for the project is to make Memphis a safer place for its citizens.
"I certainly hope that the impact of this collaborative will reduce the sexual assaults and rapes in the city of Memphis, whether through education or training or pure prosecution, which were going to do as well.
"Obviously, Im interested in seeing the numbers go down."