Special victims unit aims to help sexual assault survivors

URBANA — Dealing with a traumatizing situation can be a catalyst for a mental shutdown. Particularly, in the case of sexual assault, survivors are forced to cope with anxiety while navigating the ambiguity of an unclear night, a rush of emotions and the possibility of legal proceedings.

A select group of University of Illinois Police Department officers aimed to take on the task of helping survivors find healing amidst the chaos. These UIPD officers opted to go through a rigorous and more thorough training focused on teaching them how to follow up and investigate sexual assault cases.

“How you interview someone who just went through a traumatizing situation will be much different than from someone who has dealt with petty theft,” said Detective Sgt. Gene Moore.

The development of the UIPD Special Victims Unit came through a recognition that sexual assaults were occurring on prevalent basis on college campuses nationwide. National surveys estimate that one in five women and one in sixteen men experience sexual assault or attempted sexual assault while in college, and U. of I. Police detectives wanted to do a better job of responding to it.

UIPD’s main goal is to help give the survivors a sense of regaining control in their lives and in the investigation. If they are willing and comfortable, UIPD encourages survivors to file a report even if they are unsure if they want to move forward in the case at the current moment. Doing so makes it easier to reopen the case rather than opening it up months down the line with evidence that possibly does not exist anymore.

The important caveat is that the department understands that survivors may change their mind about pursuing a criminal investigation at any time, and investigators do everything they can to respect that decision. The goal is to put survivors in charge of how an investigation does or does not proceed.

“I had a very positive experience when working with Detective (Rachael) Ahart. She never made me feel uncomfortable and always listened to my concerns,” said U. of I. senior Lincy Pompilus and President of Students Against Sexual Assault (SASA).

Detectives also understand that not everyone may feel reporting to the police is the right decision for them, and UIPD encourages survivors to seek out resources they are comfortable with.

UIPD also aims to be inclusive as possible and is fully interactive with other sexual assault prevention resources on campus and in the Champaign-Urbana community such as Rape Advocacy, Counseling & Education Services (R.A.C.E.S), the University of Illinois Women’s Resources Center, and Courage Connection.

The department recognizes that these resources are essential to spreading awareness and helping survivors after an assault has occurred. Police believe these partnerships create a stronger presence in the fight against sexual assault while educating the campus community.

“As unfortunate as it may sound, we will never be done teaching students about the importance of sexual assault awareness on this campus.” said Detective Moore. “Every four years there is a new set of students on campus whose perceptions are different.”

Those interested in helping prevent sexual assault on the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign campus can do so by exploring the university’s many resources, such as FYCARE.

Visit the At Illinois, We Care website at wecare.illinois.edu for more information on sexual misconduct support, response, and prevention.