Student takes to Facebook to air grievances with CFPD
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A Jan. 24 Facebook post by a UNI student regarding the Cedar Falls Police Department’s handling of her sexual assault case went viral, reaching more than 2,000 shares in just a few days.
Chloe Cumberland, a freshman elementary education major, said she was sexually assaulted by an Iowa State University student, who was a former friend, in the early morning hours of Dec. 4, 2016. She claims the Cedar Falls Police Department (CFPD) were apathetic in handling her case.
“It’s like they didn’t care,” Cumberland said.
Cumberland said her perpetrator contacted her out of the blue, after not having spoken in more than two years, saying he was going to be in town for the weekend. The two had gone to the same high school in Algona.
She said she had offered the man a ride home and place to stay in her dorm after he had been out drinking on the Hill. After picking him up, Cumberland said he wanted to get a hotel room; she ended up driving to Suburban Extended Stay Hotel on Viking Road.
She said the man discussed seeing her over Christmas break. He proceeded to give her a back rub — which she said no to — then placed his hands under her shirt and ultimately in her pants.
“The only thing I can remember saying is, ‘No, no, no,’” Cumberland said. “Then I finally got him off of me after trying for so long. I grabbed […] everything and I ran out of there — I was bawling.”
She said she drove back to Bender Hall and sat in the dorm shower for two and a half hours.
“[I just sat] on the ground, because I felt so disgusting,” Cumberland said.
She said she wavered on whether to call the police, and decided to do so two days later after visiting with a Riverview center advocate.
She didn’t submit a rape kit because of the time spent in the shower, she said. Police declined to take her clothing from the night of the incident, according to Cumberland.
Perceptions of apathy
Cumberland said her issues with police began with communication problems — she sent a formal statement to one officer and didn’t receive any response until another officer notified her that it was she who should have received the statement from Cumberland in the first place.
After cooperating with the investigation, Cumberland said things hit a standstill when an officer told her that the accused had “lawyered up” and there was little CFPD could do.
“[The police officer] said, ‘We talked to the [county] attorney’s office and there’s just really not enough that we have that we can do, and […] if somebody reports him for something like this in the future that’s how that’s going to happen,’” Cumberland said. She said the officer told her that if no one else accuses the same man in the future they would “pretty much” do nothing about her case.
Cedar Falls Police Chief Jeff Olson told the NI on Feb. 8 that, since the Facebook post, CFPD had been in contact with Cumberland on a weekly basis regarding her case.
He stressed that police cannot meet with a suspect if an attorney denies their request, and that sexual assault cases are “very difficult” because there are rarely witnesses.
“We are not apathetic,” Olson said. “It’s one of the most serious cases we can work, a sexual assault is […] but frequently there is no physical evidence, how do you come to a conclusion? If you have a case where it’s ‘she says this’ and ‘he says that’ and there’s nothing else there, except the two statements, how do you determine whether it occurred or not?”
An NI investigation found that after Cumberland posted on Facebook, a UNI graduate student, Kelly Fischer, reached out to city officials to voice her concerns. At the time, Fischer was a stranger to Cumberland and had only seen her Facebook post.
Among those contacted by Fischer were Olson and Black Hawk County Attorney Brian Williams. The emails contained what was perceived as conflicting information.
Fischer read the emails to the NI. One, from Olson on Jan. 25, said, “I can tell you the County Attorney reviewed the case and said charges are not appropriate in this case.”
Fischer contacted Williams after speaking with Olson and received a message from Williams that said, “Any assertions that the Black Hawk County attorney declined prosecution is incorrect. We will not make that decision in any sexual assault until after an entire case is provided and we have the opportunity to meet with the victim and their advocate.”
Fischer said she received an unprompted email from Olson saying that the case is still under review.
Fischer was in contact with the family about the emails and said they were frustrated.
“I don’t feel like that information about my case should be released just to some stranger,” Cumberland said at a press conference Jan. 27. “She’s getting more updates than I am.”
“I would say the only reason they are revisiting [my case] is because I posted on Facebook and they are getting contacted by people,” Cumberland said. Olson said Cumberland had been informed about the status of her case at the time he responded to emails from the public.
Williams would not comment on Cumberland’s case specifically but acknowledged that, hypothetically, information such as what Olson shared would be “confusing” for the public to receive — it may be difficult for someone not schooled in law to understand the message. Williams said it may be a matter of getting “caught up in the semantics.”
Police may ask the informal opinion of the county attorney’s office on the evidence as it stands in a given case, but the ultimate decision to pursue a case in court falls on his office rendering a formal opinion, according to Williams.
Olson agreed, and commented on the email he sent to Fischer.
“Some people say, ‘Well, there’s some confusion there.’ And I think, I reread my email, and it all but said the case is closed,” Olson said. “Which that doesn’t necessarily mean the case is ‘closed.’ When do you ‘close’ a case? When do you ‘reopen’ it? Do you ever close it? You may have a homicide case that you never really ‘close.’”
“At this point, it’s been [two months since the incident] and we’re still not to a conclusion,” Olson said. “We’ll probably, eventually get to one.”
“The review process, it sometimes takes longer than you’d think,” Williams said. “Our objective is protection of the victim, future victims and assuring that we can prove a case beyond a reasonable doubt.”
“I think communication is […] really maybe the key thing,” Fischer said. “It reduces trauma, it helps people figure out how to make sense of the system, it helps people dialogue when there’s disagreement. It’s the most important element of this, and when that breaks down her trauma is continuing. It didn’t end when her attacker left […] she’s still being traumatized when she has these kinds of barriers.”
Olson said it’s unfortunate that the communication may have caused problems, but he said his office needs to be truthful about specific cases.
Cumberland said the incident did not affect her feeling safe at UNI because the incident didn’t occur on campus.
“I think he needs to be charged with sexual assault,” Cumberland said at the press conference. “He’s sitting at a campus with 33,000 other kids […] he could sexually assault anybody.”