"Sharper's rampage of druggings and rapes could have been prevented," argue four reporters from ProPublica, Sports Illustrated, and the New Orleans Advocate in a new, powerful piece about retired NFL safety Darren Sharper, who was charged with the rape, attempted rape, and drugging of nine women in four different states (Arizona, Nevada, California, and Louisiana) between February 2013 and January 2014. Last month, Sharper reached a global plea deal in all of the cases, meaning he admitted his guilt in exchange for being able to serve all of his sentences concurrently instead of one after the other. Also, he avoided a trial.
The investigation is the culmination of two months of work by a team of reporters, and its central premise is that law enforcement officials routinely "failed to investigate fully the women's allegations. They made no arrests. Some victims and eyewitnesses felt their claims were downplayed. Corroborating evidence, including DNA matches and video surveillance, was minimized or put on hold." Beyond all of this, and what seems to be most frustrating to the journalists is that "police did not inquire into Sharper's history." Not surprisingly, Sharper had left a "chilling predatory pattern" in his wake.
While the report succeeds in teasing out detail about Sharper's cases and the specific police work around them, it also succeeds in continually pointing out how the Sharper case reveals larger, systemic patterns in how law enforcement routinely handles sexual assault cases. According to the report, "studies show that only about one in three victims report sexual assaults in the first place. Of those reports, Department of Justice statistics show, less than 40 percent result in an arrest, a far lower figure than for other major crimes such as murder or aggravated assault." That latter part is due to the fact that "investigations are often cursory, sometimes incompetent, frequently done in ignorance of the suspect's past sex assault history." On top of this, "with police and prosecutors, [victims] found deference toward the accused, and what often felt like disbelief concerning their claims."
Oh, but he's a nice guy! Image via Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports
Victims who come forward to report sexual assaults often run up against a law enforcement system that writes off their accounts, and defers to the accused. Darren Sharper had an added element: he was a famous athlete who helped propel a team to the Super Bowl and who had a reputation for being a Nice Guy™. This had an impact on how his cases were handled. Sharper raped a woman in September 2013 in New Orleans and despite the officer in charge of the case gathering evidence, compelling Sharper to give a sample of his DNA, that DNA matching the rape kit, video evidence, and witness corroboration, "it wasn't enough for the district attorney." The reason, the report argues, is because "prosecutors were hesitant to move too quickly on a local football hero with deep pockets and savvy lawyers" and so they held off an arrest warrant. They wanted a "bulletproof case before they would sign off on Sharper's arrest."
He then raped another woman in Los Angeles the next month, two in Arizona the month after that, and then in a 24-hour period in January, two more in Los Angeles and another two in Las Vegas the following night. The piece also details a case in Miami in 2011 that never went anywhere, despite the fact that two women had rape kits done after their night with Sharper (the kits were never tested and since destroyed). The officer in that case never tried to contact Sharper. That would happen again with the case of the first woman Sharper raped in Los Angeles. A woman has also come forward in Miami saying Sharper raped her in 2012 but "the Miami Dade State Attorney's office decided not to file charges."
Sexual assault is poorly investigated when the people involved are not high-profile. Sharper's cases, especially the one from New Orleans, show that those issues only get worse when the accused is famous. It is hard not to think of the fact that "N.F.L. teams, which have their own robust security operations, often form close relationships with local law enforcement agencies." This was a hot-button topic for a minute last fall when an off-duty San Jose cop "reportedly was called directly by [then-49er, now-Chicago Bear Ray] McDonald that night and was already on scene when other officers arrived in response to a 911 call" reporting McDonald for domestic violence.
There was also the NYT report in October about the close relationship between Tallahassee's police department and the Florida State athletic department, concluding "the treatment of the [Jameis] Winston complaint was in keeping with the way the police on numerous occasions have soft-pedaled allegations of wrongdoing by Seminoles football players." How the Winston complaint was handled by a TPD officer parallels the failures by the officers who investigated some of the Shaper cases. Then there was the time when "the Georgia cop who took the first police report from the woman who accused Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger of sexual assault" had to resign because he not only made derogatory remarks about the woman but also had posed with pictures of the quarterback earlier in the night. He was, unfortunately, the only person who interviewed Roethlisberger.
Jameis Winston (right) prior to a campus hearing. Image via Rachel Axon-USA TODAY Sports
Of course, there are examples of cops and prosecutors doing their job, some of those even resulting in convictions (the recent Vanderbilt football case comes to mind). But they are the exceptions that prove the rule, as most reported sexual assault cases just dissolve away into nothingness while rape kits sit untested on shelves, interviews are not conducted, evidence is not collected, and victims' complaints are doubted.
This new report is yet another example of how a being a famous athlete can provide a veil of protection when it comes to the handling of criminal cases. Even those who might feel these athletes are targeted or falsely accused should at least agree that to truly get to bottom of what happened in these kinds of cases, it would help if law enforcement would just do their jobs and do it well. It is hard to imagine that happening in a world where major league teams and college athletic departments have relationships with the police departments, or district attorneys won't press charges until cops produce the elusive and unattainable "bulletproof case."
Yet again, the lingering question remains the same: How many rapes could have been prevented?