Tuesday, Jan. 10, 2017
Vice President Joe Biden had powerful words last week to inspire sexual assault prevention advocates who visited the White House from across the United States.
Calling sexual assault a cultural problem in the U.S., Biden said universities have a moral obligation to step up prevention efforts and emphasized the need for men to be involved.
In the audience was a man from Virginia Commonwealth University who has been prominently involved in addressing sexual assault issues — not only at VCU, but statewide.
VCU Police Chief John Venuti has made criminal investigations of sexual assaults at VCU survivor-centered and has both led and supported prevention education efforts. In 2014, he was appointed to the Governor’s Task Force on Combating Campus Sexual Violence and served as chairman for the law enforcement subcommittee.
“Since 2010, when I started at VCU, we’ve been working through how best to investigate sexual assaults, which need to be approached differently than other crimes,” Venuti said this week. “We want officers to build a rapport with survivors so they stay engaged with us. We’ve focused on how officers can best respond to survivors and inform them about their options, without pressuring them.”
For his work in this arena, Venuti was invited to the White House by the vice president’s office to participate in the It’s On Us Summit on Jan. 5. Protecting students of all ages from sexual assault has been a hallmark issue for the White House and the event served as a final meeting for stakeholders nationwide to discuss best practices.
Venuti has looked more broadly across Virginia and the United States to determine best practices for criminally investigating sexual assaults and supporting survivors. At the summit, he gave remarks and led a breakout session for 50 stakeholders on creating campus and community change.
“The panel focused on community collaborations in handling sexual assaults,” Venuti said. “I discussed the importance of a trauma-informed approach to investigations — combined with the importance of collaborating with all entities that are involved in handling reports.”
When handling sexual assaults, or coordinating outreach and education, VCU Police routinely work with offices across VCU, including Equity and Access Services (Title IX), The Wellness Resource Center, University Counseling Services, University Student Health Services , forensic nursing staff at VCU Health and student groups.
Venuti also has well-established, working relationships with the Richmond Commonwealth Attorney’s Office, YWCA of Richmond and other regional offices that may play a role in criminal investigations and supporting survivors.
At the White House event, Venuti specifically discussed the You Have Options Program (YHOP), which he formally implemented at VCU in August 2016. The VCU Police Department was the first campus policing agency in the U.S. to offer YHOP for survivors. Venuti’s detectives have been trained to treat a sexual assault as a traumatic event and to investigate at the comfort level of the survivor. He also has officers trained for victim-witness services on every patrol shift.
“Many attendees were interested in this innovative program because it helps remove barriers to reporting and increases reports to law enforcement,” Venuti said.
The program aims to get the most favorable outcome for survivors and for the criminal justice system. Because each survivor’s needs are different, Venuti often says he measures the success of sexual assault investigations one case at a time.
Also on Jan.5, the White House released two summary documents to help guide universities in handling sexual assault: the Second Report of the White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault and a Guide for College Presidents, Chancellors, and Senior Administrators.
Venuti is focused on continuing collaborative work with partners at VCU and regionally and on building YHOP. Over time, VCU Police detectives will work with YHOP coordinators to develop a database for the documentation of trends, and profiles, of serial sexual predators.
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