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Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Cops Hit Back at Oregonian Report on Sex Crimes Unit

Posted by Denis C. Theriault on Tue, Feb 25, 2014 at 12:14 PM

The city auditor's office released a mixed-bag audit on the police bureau's sex crimes unit this morning—praising it for making great progress after a 2007 audit absolutely ripped the unit to shreds, but also highlighting a high-profile lapse in a rape case involving a Legacy Emanuel nurse and some other lingering challenges in communication and oversight.

But while the cops were hoping for more headlines and stories like this one, from Oregon Public Broadcasting:

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They instead woke up to a story like this one, from the Oregonian:

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And that, apparently, got the bureau's dander up. About the same time as it sent an email saying it agreed with the audit's findings, good and bad, the bureau took to its Facebook page to specifically address the O's piece and the way it was framed. The daily led with the lapses and acknowledged the progress, but not as a central element of its story, and called the sex crimes unit "beleaguered."

The Oregonian does a disservice to the community by portraying our detectives as beleaguered when they are capable professionals who respond to sex assaults in a compassionate manner.

This article’s mischaracterization may have a chilling impact on the willingness victims of sexual violence to come forward. They need to believe and trust in the detectives, dispatchers and hospital employees who are doing their very best to help them heal and investigate and hold accountable those responsible.

The criticism raises a complicated point. Obviously no one likes bad press—and it's not the O's job to make the cops feel good about an audit that includes some legitimately harsh critiques. The case the paper highlights is egregious, in terms of lapses. And the audit makes clear the bureau has yet to formally track its promise that all sex crime allegations actually go to detectives for serious review.

But you can also see the bureau's point. The audit takes pains to talk up progress. That's the theme in the title of the report. And they're worried that victims might miss that message and not report sex crimes—even if what happened in the Legacy case is unusual and probably wouldn't be what they'd face if they called.

There's a good lesson in here—and it's something reporters don't often like to acknowledge publicly. "Journalism," even when it's sound and aimed at promoting accountability, can come off as bloodless and maybe not always help the people it's trying to serve. I wouldn't say the O's story goes quite that far. But I hope writers and editors all over town keep thinking about making sure their work doesn't cross that line.

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