If the number of sexual assaults in Huntington Beach goes up next year, officials say it could be a good thing.
A spike in statistics would mean more victims coming forward, more assaults getting investigated and potentially more criminals in custody for crimes police said are grossly underreported.
“Only up to 20 percent of sexual assaults are being reported to police,” said Huntington Beach Lt. John Cottriel. “When a (victim) gets enough courage to tell someone, usually a family member or friend, if that response is negative, the chance of that crime ever making it to the criminal justice system goes to almost nothing.”
Making sure a sexual assault victim gets a positive reaction is the goal of a new campaign from End Violence Against Women International called Start by Believing.
“It’s a really powerful campaign … designed to change the way we respond as a community to sexual violence,” said Varsha N., executive board member of EVAWI. “These are our daughters, our mothers and our sisters. Our response to their disclosure of assault can make a positive impact on their lives.”
Huntington Beach is the first Orange County police department to sign on for Start by Believing, and officials hope to spread the word using social media and community outreach.
“We’re really trying to support our victims and get a handle on the issue,” said Police Chief Robert Handy. “We have seen a pretty significant increase in sexual assaults, which is one of the reasons we’re doing this campaign.”
Huntington Beach saw 39 sexual assaults from January to August, up from 18 in 2013.
“Most of our sexual assaults are not the stranger-type, where someone gets attacked on the streets,” Cottriel said. “Those are, by far, much rarer than the type that happens on a date … or maybe even an ongoing relationship.”
Whatever the circumstances, it can be discouraging for a sexual assault victim to be met with pointed questions, doubt, criticism or judgment, police said.
Couple a negative reaction with an intimidating criminal justice system, and it’s easy to see why some victims stay quiet, Handy said.
“I think our system, in many respects, has a history of not always being real kind to victims … in particular, sexual assault victims,” Handy said. “The process can be very difficult. There’s no doubt that going through an investigation like this is invasive.”
Handy said he hopes getting the word out about Start by Believing will mean more cases on investigators’ desks and fewer offenders in the community.
“The average sexual assault suspect will victimize five more women before they’re caught,” he said. “Let’s support our victims, let’s believe our victims and do what we can to catch the perpetrators.”
Jana Harden, a victim’s advocate who works with Huntington Beach police, added a positive response can start the recovery process for many victims.
“It focuses more on holding an offender accountable for the crime that they committed,” Harden said. Start by Believing “adds another layer of support to victims of sexual assault in our community.”
To learn more about Start by Believing, or to pledge support visit startbybelieving.org
Victims of a sexual assault are encouraged to contact police immediately. Harden said a 24-7 hotline is also available at 714-957-2737.