Des Moines Register today!
Really Good article
Almost a year after she was raped by the then-assistant police chief while his boss looked on, a Creston country-club bartender got justice. The second-degree sexual-assault convictions of former Chief James Christensen and former Assistant Chief John Sickels Thursday are a particular victory considering how stacked the deck was against the victim.
"Just think about it - the top two law-enforcement officers," said Vickie Hodge, a rape-victim advocate who sat through the trial and said she saw a succession of law-enforcement officials turn out to support the defendants instead of the victim. Among them were another former Creston police chief, Bill Heatherington, and current Union County Sheriff Rick Piel. Christensen and Sickels were later removed from the force, but Piel helped Christensen stage a fake exit from court last June.
How could this victim have confidence in the impartiality of law enforcement when the sheriff chose to help an accused rapist escape the media?
In the trial, the defense predictably used the victim's delay in reporting, and failure to seek medical treatment, to cast doubt on her credibility. She said she was afraid. And can you blame her, when her accused rapists were at the time the highest-ranking police officials in town? Not only that, but when she later asked Christensen to file a report, in a secretly recorded conversation, he refused.
As director of the Rural Iowa Crisis Center in Creston, Hodge contacted the Iowa State Police's Department of Criminal Investigation on the woman's behalf, understanding her fear of dealing with local officers. Hodge said the Creston Police Department has long treated her agency as an adversary instead of an ally, noting, "There seems to be an attitude, if you question what happened or what's done, somehow you're against them."
"I have never gotten the sense from the Creston Police Department that there was any respect for women," Hodge said. Many of her clients have been reluctant to report sexual assault to Creston police, she added.
Other police agencies invite advocates to train police. But according to Hodge, when her center in 2005 got federal money to train law-enforcement officials, out of 14 police agencies in six counties, only Creston didn't come. It's no surprise, then, that Christensen claimed not to know someone alleging rape has a right to file a report.
Hodge said the police department has seldom followed through on an agreement to forward the names of alleged victims when arrests are made, so she can offer them services. And she said the department was late to establish a standardized policy on handling domestic violence.
The new Creston police chief, Paul Ver Meer, couldn't be reached for comment, but Hodge is hopeful things will change under him.
Filing rape charges always takes courage because of the tactics used to discredit the accuser. Sometimes press reports contribute to the appearance of bias. On Friday, Beth Barnhill, executive director of the Iowa Coalition Against Sexual Assault, wrote to KCCI News complaining that news of the verdict was followed by "a lengthy commentary by your reporter who went on and on about the grief and anguish of the former officers' families," with no acknowledgment of the victim's feelings.
The DCI deserves kudos for its handling of the case, as do the jurors for their independence. Now the new Creston police chief needs to take a hard look at fixing the good-old-boy culture his predecessors evidently fostered. He could start by reaching out to the victims' advocates.