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After one arrest in six years, UNL police aim to empower sexual assault survivors
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After one arrest in six years, UNL police aim to empower sexual assault survivors

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UNL protest, 08.26

Protesters applaud deeply personal stories shared by many sexual assault survivors during a rally outside the Nebraska Union on Aug. 26.

On June 5, 2020, campus police at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln issued an arrest warrant for a 19-year-old accused of first-degree sexual assault for an incident alleged to have occurred in October 2019.

It was a rare move for the university's police department — the only investigation of a rape or attempted rape in the last six years that ended in the arrest of the accused.

The department's arrest rate in reported sexual assaults has come under scrutiny after students and advocates protested five times in eight days following an alleged rape at the Phi Gamma Delta fraternity house on Aug. 24 involving a 19-year-old Fiji member.

University police have investigated 48 rapes or attempted rapes at UNL since September 2015. One case was found to be out of the department's jurisdiction, according to police. Four cases — including the alleged assault at the Fiji house that prompted sweeping calls for change and was met with a swift response from the university — are still ongoing.

The one arrest resulted from the 43 remaining investigations.

That low arrest rate can have a chilling effect on reporting sexual assault, said Marcee Metzger, the executive director of Voices of Hope, a local victim advocacy organization.

In a phone interview on Thursday, Metzger decried how few sexual assault reports made to law enforcement — involving UNL police and other departments — end in an arrest or prosecution and lamented the months-long process that forces survivors of sexual assault to continuously relive their experience as the only route to justice.

Metzger said the process can be demeaning for accusers, who are often forced to choose between participating in weeks-long investigations or moving on without seeing the accused punished.

Even after an arrest, an array of court hearings can stretch the case out even longer. The 19-year-old arrested 15 months ago, Landon Ludwig, was set for a motion hearing on Tuesday — 695 days after UNL police officers first fielded the allegation against him.

"I think there's a lot of deterrents that stand in the way for individuals to feel like they're gonna get much justice from the criminal justice system," Metzger said. 

Assistant Chief Marty Fehringer, who joined UNL police in February after a long stint with the Lincoln Police Department, said investigators use so-called trauma-informed tactics in working with survivors, putting them largely in charge of the pace of the investigation.

Sometimes, Fehringer said, accusers will opt to discontinue the investigation after first aiming to seek criminal charges, though the assistant chief said he didn't know how many of the 42 inactive investigations had been halted at the request of the survivor.

Fehringer acknowledged that investigations take time — often weeks or even months, he said. But he emphasized the department's commitment to accusers and said UNL police would reexamine records to develop a better understanding of how, exactly, investigations are panning out.

Still, Fehringer isn't sure that the department's arrest rate in sexual assault investigations — 2.3% since September 2015 — is a deterrent for sexual assault survivors weighing whether to make a report.

"I hope not," Fehringer said, noting the variety of reasons an investigation might end before an arrest is made. "We, again, respect victim survivors, so we don't dictate how long or if they want to be involved in the process.

"We just do the best that we can along the way. If it's all the way to the end, and at the end of the day we can say, 'We've done every step that we can take along this,' and we make an arrest or we can't — I think we have to live with that, unfortunately."

One obstacle Fehringer pointed to is the differing burdens of proof placed on police, who can arrest a suspect with probable cause, and prosecutors, who must prove a crime occurred beyond a reasonable doubt.

"If they don't make an arrest or the case is not referred to us, we'll never see it," Lancaster County Attorney Pat Condon said. "I don't know how many of those have been referred to us. ... Those are difficult cases, but there are a lot of difficult cases that we charge, including sexual assault."

In the days since the alleged sexual assault at the Fiji house, UNL police have fielded six additional reports of rapes or attempted rapes, though at least four of those came via the university's Title IX office, which ensures the accuser remains anonymous.

Police learned of one of the six latest reports — a rape alleged to have occurred at the Sigma Chi fraternity house on Aug. 26 — via a social media post. 

Fehringer, in his 31st year as a police officer, hopes the uptick in reports of sexual misconduct is a sign of progress as much as it is an indictment, opening the door for an advanced dialogue between survivors, the university and its police department.

Reach the writer at 402-473-7223 or awegley@journalstar.com.

On Twitter @andrewwegley

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