Prosecutor prefers county investigate rapes at Notre Dame

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Students at the University of Notre Dame who have been told for years to report sexual assault cases to campus police have the option of reporting such cases directly to the St. Joseph County Special Victims Unit, a prosecutor said.

St. Joseph County Prosecutor Ken Cotter told the South Bend Tribune in a story published Sunday that he would prefer those cases be investigated by the unit made up of detectives drawn from South Bend, Mishawaka and county police who are trained in handling domestic violence, sex assault and child abuse cases.

"It just makes sense to me," he said.

In an agreement among Notre Dame and local officials, the countywide Metro Homicide Unit would investigate a murder on campus, and the county Fatal Alcohol Crash Team would investigate a fatal traffic accident on campus, Cotter said. Notre Dame thus far has chosen not to participate in the SVU, although Cotter approached them with the idea after he was elected in November.

Notre Dame spokesman Paul Browne said university officials acknowledge that county and state police have the prerogative to investigate crimes within their jurisdiction, which includes the ND campus.

The issue of college sexual assault has attracted national attention recently, in part because of a new documentary film, "The Hunting Ground," which takes a critical look at the handling of sex assault cases at various campuses, including Notre Dame.

Cotter's statements about cases being reported directly to the county are a departure from years of practice and advice to students about reporting procedures and the role of campus police. Just last month, in an email to the Notre Dame student body about support services for sex assault, a university administrator said reports should go to campus police.

"Students are strongly encouraged to consider reporting a sexual assault to the University and/or the police. Notre Dame Security Police is a duly authorized police agency in the state of Indiana, and is the law enforcement agency with which to file a report for any incident that occurred on Notre Dame property," Erin Hoffmann Harding, the vice president for student affairs, wrote in the email.

The student handbook states: "If the incident occurred on Notre Dame property, NDSP, a duly authorized police agency in the state of Indiana, is the appropriate agency with which to file a report."

A total of 30 sexual assaults, including 16 rapes, were reported at Notre Dame from 2011 to 2013, according to annual campus crime reports that colleges are required to make public under the federal Clery Act.

Cotter said he doesn't know if NDSP officers use similar investigation methods to those used by the SVU.

"I know how we do it. I can't tell you how Notre Dame does it," Cotter said.

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