‘We believe you’: Despite Routt’s 92 arrests in 10 years, experts believe sex assault is still under-reported
Sexual assault awareness remains an important topic for Routt County
From 2012-21, sexual assault case numbers across Routt County show 241 initial reports leading to 92 arrests.
Based on combined statistics from the Routt County Sheriff’s Office and the Steamboat Springs, Oak Creek and Hayden police departments, there has been an average of one to two sexual assault reports throughout the county each month. In 2021, 33 reports received countywide were followed by 15 arrests. There were 35 reports and 14 arrests in 2020, and 30 reports and 12 arrests in 2019.
Experts say that sexual assault is a notoriously under-reported crime.
“I believe there were unreported cases that involved tourists leaving town and not wanting to report or local people who choose not to report,” longtime Steamboat Springs Police Department Detective Sam Silva said.
Officials say higher reporting numbers may signal positive signs — that education, awareness and societal changes are combining to encourage more people to come forward.
“Or the higher reporting could also simply indicate more cases,” Silva said.
Sexual assaults reported in Steamboat Springs have been almost exclusively perpetrated by people who were acquainted with the victim — and the majority involved substance use.
That is why Silva teaches students and residents ways to protect themselves, such as planning ahead to have a safe night out and discussing how individuals can take action during a pressure-filled situation.
Sexual assault often happens between people who are dating, met through friends or who met at a bar or party, Silva said.
An estimated half of the cases the detective has worked involved individuals under age 18, and in those cases, some involved juveniles who were too incapacitated by drugs or alcohol to be able to protect themselves.
“We’ve had a huge amount of sex assaults, but a lot of them lately have been juveniles,” Silva said in early March. “We’ve definitely seen an uptick in sexual assaults in just the past few weeks.”
Of the 103 sexual assault cases where charges could be pursued by SSPD during the past nine years, 58 of those resulted in arrests, which translates to a 56% arrest rate among those cases which the department was able to pursue, Silva said.
When reports do not result in an arrest, a number of reasons can come into play. In some cases, the reports were unfounded or were inaccurately reported by a third party. Some are still pending or under investigation, while others simply did not have enough evidence, the victim was unwilling to prosecute, or the case was referred to another jurisdiction, according to local law enforcement officials.
‘We believe you’
Silva emphasized that police department officials start from the position of believing victims. He explained more in a video posted on the Steamboat Pilot & Today’s YouTube page and with this article online.
“It’s important that people understand that, when you report a sex assault, that first and foremost, we begin with believing you when you come in,” Silva said. “It’s a very scary thing to come forward, and we understand that. We do our best to work with victims. We believe you, and we really want you to know that you are supported throughout the process if you do come forward.”
Because sex assault is the primary criminal concern, charges are not considered for underage drinking or illegal drug use that may have occurred at the same time, Silva explained.
“A lot of people are afraid to come and report things because they are afraid they are going to get in trouble,” he said.
The statute of limitations to prosecute a sexual assault is 10 years after a victim turns 18, even if the assault happened when the person was a child.
Regardless of the circumstances, no one who’s been assaulted should feel any blame for the attack. But everyone can take steps to decrease opportunities for sexual assault.
Silva said one key suggestion to protect oneself is to never go to a party or bar alone, or never be left there alone without a trusted friend there.
If the situation arises that a person is left alone, especially if he or she has imbibed too much, Silva recommends reaching out to a bartender or staff at the establishment.
Bartenders and wait staff can call police to request a welfare check without being afraid that over-serving charges will be filed, the detective said.
“You can reach out to law enforcement or bar staff if you find yourself in an uncomfortable situation,” Silva said.
Decreasing the chances of suffering an assault can come from people maintaining awareness of themselves, their surroundings and the people around them, Silva added.
Other physical factors, such as dehydration, not being acclimated to higher elevation, combining prescription drugs with substance use, and even drinking alcohol in a hot tub can boost intoxication levels and reduce situational awareness, Silva said.
All these factors can diminish someone’s defenses against a predator.
In order to help bar and restaurant staff learn how to recognize when patrons are in bad situations, nonprofit Advocates of Routt County offers a free Good Night Out training program.
The program seeks to prevent sexual misconduct and violence originating in bars and restaurants, allowing customers to have a safe night out.
“Whether a person is voluntarily intoxicated or someone drugged their drink, service employees at bars and restaurants are the first line of defense for preventing sexual misconduct and violence,” according to the group.
Good Night Out training explores safety measures for improving procedures, policies and physical environments, while training staff on how to identify problem behaviors and prevent incidents before they occur.
Routt County resident Patty Oakland, a forensic nursing trainer and expert, said learning about sexual assault awareness is important for many people, including youth, women, men and employees.
That includes understanding what kinds of behavior can go beyond being simply inappropriate — and what an individual must do to be a perpetrator of sexual assault.
“To avoid being accused of being a perpetrator, you also need to acknowledge the fact that your substance use can cloud your judgment,” Oakland said. “You are less likely when you are drinking and using substances to pick up on nonverbal and social cues, such as someone moving away from your touches.”
Officials also warn bar patrons to never leave drinks unattended, and one request in the Good Night Out program is for bar owners to provide a safe and sanitary place in each bathroom stall for patrons to set drinks.
Oakland said action by bystanders in the event that behavior is becoming concerning is important, noting the adage, “if you see something, say something.”
“The idea is that you can go out and have a good night, and everybody at the bar is respectful of one another and their space,” Oakland said.
Oakland said community members should feel empowered to intervene in situations that could escalate toward an assault.
“Don’t be afraid to step in and tell someone, ‘Hey, looks like you’ve had enough. You need to go home. Who are you here with? Let’s get you a ride home,’” Oakland said.
Oakland also believes more drinks are spiked in area bars than people realize, but that type of case can be difficult to prove.
Reporting it quickly is key. If someone believes his or her drink may have been spiked, submitting to urine or blood tests within 12 hours if possible — or sometimes even up to 72 hours — is critical to obtain evidence.
Sooner is better, Oakland advised, adding that patrons may also ask bartenders to preserve a drink for testing if the patron believes his or her drink was spiked.
Silva said a common scenario in local sexual assaults includes juveniles who are dating, and one person becomes too incapacitated to give verbal consent for sexual activity. He said if one person does not speak up because he or she feels pressured and the situation ends up going too far, “That is still illegal.”
“If you are scared and did not give consent, that still can be prosecuted,” Silva said. “You don’t have to physically attempt to fight someone off for it to be a sex assault.”
Cup of tea analogy
Educators point to an analogy that understanding sexual consent is similar to offering someone a cup of tea.
In an educational video called “Consent, It’s Simple as Tea,” made by Blue Seat Studios, the narrator explains, “If you are still struggling with consent, just imagine you are making a cup of tea.”
Even if the person says yes happily to the offer of being made a cup of tea, for example, the person can then decide not to drink that cup of tea once it has been prepared. The person who made that cup of tea is not allowed to pour that tea down another’s throat.
And just because someone drank the tea one day, that person does not have to drink the tea again or on another day.
Reporting the crime
Law enforcement officials say sex assault victims rarely report it to police immediately after the crime.
However, victims can undergo a forensic exam to collect evidence about an alleged assault without reporting the situation to police immediately. The actual police report can be made later. Local law enforcement officials say reports often happen days, weeks or months later.
“It’s common to not report at all, or to report much later,” Silva said.
One advancement in reporting sexual assaults locally is the addition of the nonprofit Brighter World Child Advocacy Center in Steamboat Springs, which employs specially trained staff who conduct verbal forensic interviews with child and youth crime victims. The center serves cases originating in Routt, Moffat and Grand counties, according to Mark Fitzgerald, executive director at Brighter World.
Advocates, staff and partners also are working to restart the dormant local Sexual Assault Response Team (SART), with a meeting scheduled for Thursday, March 17.
Silva said the local SART has not been active in the past few years due to a number of factors including the COVID-19 pandemic, funding sources and shortages of staff or changes in personnel.
Learn more about sexual assault awareness and prevention through local, state or national resources.
Good Night Out — Restaurant and bar owners can schedule a free educational training for staff to learn how to recognize problem behaviors related to sexual misconduct and how to safely intervene if needed. GNO explores safety measures for improving procedures, policies and physical environments, while training staff how to help prevent incidents. To schedule a training, contact Advocates of Routt County at email@example.com.
Sexual assault awareness presentations — Any school or community group can schedule a free, educational presentation through the Steamboat Springs Police Department. Contact Detective Sam Silva at firstname.lastname@example.org.
RAINN.org — rainn.org/safety-students the nation’s largest anti-sexual violence organization provides much information. RAINN operates the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 800.656.HOPE (or 4673).
National Sexual Violence Resource Center — nsvrc.org
Colorado Coalition Against Sexual Assault — ccasa.org
You Have the Right campaign — youhavetherightco.org
To reach Suzie Romig, call 970-871-4205 or email sromig@SteamboatPilot.com.
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