PHOENIX — The Phoenix Police Department mistreated an officer who reported a sex assault against a fellow cop and then tried to downplay what happened once the allegation made the news, according to advocates and a leading sexual trauma expert.
The response to Abby Dennison’s case — both in 2010 when it was reported, and when it was finally investigated in 2020 — raises concerns about the culture inside the department.
Specifically, advocates criticized Phoenix for taking her sex assault allegation and instead calling it an “inappropriate sexual interaction.”
“I felt betrayed,” Dennison told ABC15. “It makes me sick thinking if this is how I was treated, all of those other people out there are being treated worse.”
Phoenix police officials did not agree to an interview request to discuss Dennison’s case.
The department also did not answer specific questions about how she was treated.
In an emailed response, a spokesperson wrote: “Any allegation of sexual assault is serious and represents a traumatic event that must be treated with compassion.”
If you have experienced sexual assault and need assistance call, text, or chat the Arizona Sexual and Domestic Violence Helpline Monday through Friday 8:30 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. You can get connected to local resources or to talk to a victim advocate by calling 602-279-2980, texting 520-720-3383, accessing chat services online here For 24 hour support, call the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 800-656-4673 to get connected to your local sexual assault provider.
TREATMENT AT THE HOSPITAL
Dennison said she was sexually assaulted at a small get-together with coworkers on August 20, 2010.
Witnesses said there was drinking, swimming, hanging out, and talking about work and life. Dennison was highly intoxicated, vomiting, and she eventually passed out.
Dennison said she woke up to another officer having sex with her.
She went to the emergency room later in the day to get a rape kit and because she couldn’t remove a tampon that had been pushed too far inside of her, medical records show.
“When I hear that a woman had a tampon pushed inside due to sexual activity while possibly under the influence, this is a huge amount of physical trauma,” said Jenna Panas, who’s the executive director of the Arizona Coalition to End Sexual and Domestic Violence. “Frankly to me as an uneducated, I’m not medical person of course, but it feels like sexual assault to me, which is what Abby said it was.”
At the hospital, six Phoenix officials arrived: A commander, two lieutenants, two sergeants, and a detective.
In her hospital room, Dennison told them what happened.
“It was awful,” she said. “It was intimidating.”
Dennison said the detective then spoke to her alone.
“He said to me, ‘You have five minutes to decide to press charges because I have crime scenes to secure and search warrants to write,’” she said.
Panas said it’s troubling to hear that police would put a time limit on a potential victim, who was still waiting to get a tampon dislodged from inside her.
“I think anyone who has gone through any kind of trauma or any type of human feeling can see how that is completely inappropriate,” Panas said. “When you’ve gone through a traumatic experience, you need time. Time to make choices, time to heal, a time to process what’s going on.”
Dr. Jim Hopper, a clinical psychologist and sexual trauma expert, told ABC15, everything Dennison described about her experience at the hospital is the exact opposite of the proper law enforcement response.
“I mean this is basically the worst possible way you could respond to a sexual assault victim,” said Hopper, who’s also a teaching associate at Harvard Medical School. “The general best practices around this are just to have the minimal number of people present necessary, have a victim advocate who’s solely there to provide support, and have a very highly-trained sensitive interviewer — one person — to ask those questions in a very thoughtful or careful way that is not going to overwhelm or lead the victim to feel judged or shamed or controlled or disempowered in any kind of way.”
Under the pressure, Dennison said she wavered and declined to prosecute.
She said the way she was treated made her feel like a burden and someone who was just making more work for the department.
Phoenix police did no further criminal investigation of the incident and didn’t create an official incident report.
There is limited documentation in Phoenix police files about what Dennison said that night: A few pages of scribbled notes and a two-page internal memo that omits key details and contains false information.
“So little was documented, I wonder what, if anything, the police actually investigated other than trying to discredit Abby,” said Meaghan Ybos, a sex assault survivor and advocate.
Ybos runs an organization called “People for the Enforcement of Rape Laws.” She started it after Memphis police mishandled the case against the man who attacked her as a teenager.
Ybos said responses like Phoenix with Dennison can cause more trauma for victims.
“Yes, (it can be) as traumatic or more,” she said. “The police and what they did affected me way more than the attack itself.”
‘INAPPROPRIATE SEXUAL INTERACTION’
ABC15 learned about Dennison’s case in mid-2020 when investigating larger issues of misconduct inside Phoenix police.
The station aired a report about another woman who accused the same officer of sexual assault during a traffic stop and filed a lawsuit.
An ABC15 report aired in August 2020 included the 2010 memo written about Dennison’s allegation. [ABC15 had not yet interviewed her.]
In the days after the story, top Phoenix police officials sent an email response to “clarify” that the memo about Dennison’s claims did not involve sexual assault but rather “inappropriate sexual interaction.”
Hospital records from Dennison’s visit to the emergency room show that she did tell medical providers she was “sexually assaulted.”
“It was a sexual assault,” Dennison said in a recent interview. “For them to say it’s an inappropriate sexual interaction, it’s minimizing. It’s an insult to my intelligence. It’s an insult to all of the women who have ever been in this unfortunate situation.”
Local and national advocates agree.
“Yeah, 'inappropriate sexual interaction' sounds like they’re trying to minimize it,” Ybos said.
Andrea Ritchie, a police misconduct attorney who also researches and writes about sexual violence, said it’s a gross minimization.
“It certainly signals that the Phoenix Police Department is explicit in rape culture,” she said.
Jenna Panas, the leader of Arizona’s local survivor coalition, used the same term.
“I don’t know what 'inappropriate sexual interaction' would be,” Panas said. “To me, that’s sexual assault… what it sounds like to me is downplaying sexual assault and trying to use words to condone or make it feel better. It really is just evidence of rape culture.”
The Phoenix Police Department did not answer a direct question about who came up with the phrase “inappropriate sexual interaction.”
After learning about other women who accused the same officer of misconduct, Dennison contacted the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office in October 2020 in order to get a new investigation.
She didn’t trust Phoenix police because of how she was treated in 2010 and since the department was currently being sued twice, including a case for hiding the accused officer’s misconduct during a criminal trial.
Dennison urged county prosecutors to ask Phoenix police to refer the case to another agency but the city pushed back.
Phoenix closed the case in March and declined to submit charges.
‘A MATTER OF CONSENT’ is an ongoing ABC15 series. Journalists are currently getting an independent analysis of Phoenix’s recent investigation of Dennison allegations for an upcoming report. Contact ABC15 Investigator Dave Biscobing at Dave@ABC15.com.