Recent years have seen a heated national debate on the best way to deal with sex crimes committed on college campuses. An Illinois bill introduced by state Rep. David Harris is one of the many legislative efforts across the country to address the growing concern.
The bill, titled “Investigations of Sexual Assault in Higher Education Act,” comes in the wake of reports that Northern Illinois University campus police botched the investigation surrounding a sexual assault case. In October of 2011, a female student accused a police officer of sexual assault. A judge found the department mishandled evidence and purposely withheld witness statements.
Harris's bill seeks to place authority over sex crime investigations in the hands of local police instead of campus officers.
Campus police would play a subordinate role in these investigations. Harris explained to the Chicago Tribune why he felt municipal and sheriff departments might be better able to handle these cases. “My concern was that the campus police are not as equipped, trained and prepared to handle allegations of sexual assaults as are trained law enforcement officers,” Harris said. “Campus police have a bias, to be quite frank with you.” The bias Harris mentions is toward maintaining the college's reputation, possibly by minimizing or attempting to obscure reports of sexual assault from the public eye.
Sexual Assault Investigations Hotly Debated Nationwide
According to the Associated Press, three other states—Rhode Island, Virginia, and New Jersey—have already introduced similar legislation this year. The proposed laws would require campus officials to promptly report all allegations of sexual assault to local law enforcement.
All the bills have faced opposition in their respected state bodies. In Illinois, both the Illinois Association of Chiefs of Police and the Illinois Campus Law Enforcement Administrators Association have sided against the legislation.
Patrick O'Connor is president of the campus law enforcement administration, and he has worked as police chief both in campus and municipal departments. He says that campus police are capable of addressing these problems without interference from local departments.
“The average campus has more facilities and support than a municipality does,” O'Connor told the Tribune. “I think most departments, in this era with heavy sanctions above our heads, are going to investigate these cases. Not investigating in today's era is going to do more damage to your institution.”
Supporters of the bill, however, worry that some campus police may be inclined to protect the reputation of the college over the rights of victims. “A campus policeman could be biased on behalf of the institution hoping to avoid bad publicity and pressure could be brought by the school's administration,” Harris said. “I am not saying this happens, but there could be a bias on the part of the campus police.”
Sexual Assault Far Too Common on College Campuses, Report Says
Sexual assault has no doubt always been a grim reality of campus life. But recent public and media outcry has been widespread and continues to grow. National attention has spurred lawmakers, college administrators, and police to review the policies addressing sex crime allegations on campuses everywhere.
Earlier this year, the Washington Post and Kaiser Family Foundation released a survey that indicated as many as 1 in 5 female college students had experienced some form of sexual assault on campus.
The report defined sexual assault as all forms of unwanted physical contact of a sexual nature, not just forcible rape. Poll respondents were asked if they experienced unwanted sexual contact with force or threats of force, or if they had such encounters while they were too intoxicated from drugs or alcohol to consent or stop what was happening.
Though the report was not without critics, the numbers intensified the debate and led to a national focus on how campus administration and police handle allegations of sexual assault.
What New Bill Could Mean For Accused Offenders
If the assumptions the bill is based on are accurate—that campus departments are more lenient on sexual assault than district police—this means allegations of sexual assault will be taken more seriously. Local police will treat accusations of sexual assault as criminal matter. Campus administration, however, is more inclined to the treat accusations as a civil matter.
Under current law, victims have the option of notifying the police, the administration, or both. The new law would require the school to report all incidents of alleged sexual assault to the local police. For the accused college student, this means—if the bill passes—they could face felony charges instead of expulsion or other administrative penalties. In other words, if you are charged, your future would be at stake more than ever before. Make sure you get the legal defense you need to fight back.
About The Author:
Howard J. Wise, the owner of the Illinois-based Law Offices of Howard J. Wise & Associates, is a criminal defense attorney who stands ready to assist clients in many different areas of the law, including criminal appeals, DUI, misdemeanors, traffic violations, and felonies. Mr. Wise began his legal career at the Cook County State's Attorney's Office as the assistant state attorney, where he was able to gain unique prosecutorial experience. He then transitioned to criminal defense and currently devotes his practice exclusively to protecting the rights of those accused of crime.