(WOMENSENEWS)--Throughout the 1990s, the Detroit Police Department's rape squad looked great, consistently reporting the nation's highest arrest rates, always at least double the national average.
Now, the city's shame-faced police department acknowledges that the statistics were wrong and its crime data are so seriously flawed that it is unclear how many suspects really were collared. But it insists that the statistics were not deliberately changed and misreported, as they have been in many other cities where police departments dismiss rape complaints and try to boost their image.
Women's advocates are alarmed and say the phony numbers gave them a false sense of security.
The errors appear to follow the pattern of erroneous statistics for homicide arrests that were so high that they skewed national crime statistics. The fact that the city's crime data were misleading was uncovered by an investigation undertaken by the local newspaper, the Detroit Free Press.
"It might have been a computer problem, with duplicate entries for the same arrest," said Deputy Chief Paula Bridges. She added that she was unable to determine for how many years the misreporting has occurred.
Sheilah Clay, executive director of Detroit's Neighborhood Service Organization, said the misinformation has serious ramifications for her group that provides counseling and referral services to victims of sexual assault, domestic abuse and other social problems.
"It gives the community a false sense of security when that may not be an accurate picture," said Clay. "It has ramifications on levels that people wouldn't even think of."
Detroit's troubles highlight a national problem of police departments' inaccuracy in crime reporting--which often influences how departments provide services to rape victims.
Nationwide, Police Reporting of Rape Has Proved to Be Highly Flawed
Increasingly, police reporting of rape nationwide has been proved to be highly flawed.
Criminologist Alfred Blumstein, of Pittsburgh's Carnegie Mellon University, says police data on rape are far less dependable than reporting for other crimes because police departments differ in determining how women's rape complaints are counted.
"I don't trust the numbers," said Blumstein. "There's so much discretion in reporting."
Without accurate police reporting, women's groups can't judge whether police are solving rapes. Philadelphia police for years hid hundreds of sexual assault complaints in an effort to make the city look safer than it really was. St. Paul recently announced that throughout the 1990s, it mistakenly inflated its statistics for solving rape cases.
Detroit's problems exploded last month after news reports that the city's homicide arrest figures were so seriously inflated that they skewed the FBI's data for the entire nation. Year after year, it had told the FBI that it arrested about five times as many suspects as it really charged in killings.
For example, the Detroit Police Department had told the FBI that for 1999 there were 415 murders and 1,152 arrests in the Motor City, or nearly three times as many arrests as there were murders. However, Michael Cox, a deputy chief prosecutor of Wayne County, Mich., said in an interview that only about 200 suspects really were arrested in Detroit each year for murder.
Another measure of Detroit's inaccuracies are the FBI's national crime statistics for murder arrests. In 1999, the latest year for which FBI statistics are available, police across the country reported 15,533 murders and arrested 14,790 suspects--nine arrests for every 10 murders.
Flawed Statistics: Three Times the National Rate for Murder Arrests
But at the rate Detroit was reporting arrests, it would have been collaring 27 suspects for every 10 murders. In other words, Detroit supposedly was arresting murder suspects at three times the national rate.
In mid-April, a top Detroit police official confirmed that the problem appeared to extend to crimes beyond homicide. Commander Dennis Richardson of the department's Major Crimes Division told the Detroit Free Press that his department had asked the FBI to help Detroit straighten out the problem with the city's crime statistics.
He said the FBI team already had uncovered several problems.
FBI spokesperson Mary Victoria Pyne said it was clear from their initial meeting that Detroit police "really don't have a good understanding of the uniform crime reporting system." She said another FBI team soon will "do some massive training" in Detroit.
Detroit Reported More Than Twice National Number of Rape Arrests
Detroit's rape arrest statistics were off the mark as well, more than twice the national arrest rate. For example, in 1999, the FBI reported 89,107 rapes and 28,830 rape arrests--three arrests for every 10 rapes. The Detroit Police Department that year reported 790 rapes and 648 arrests--eight arrests for every 10 rapes.
Detroit Deputy Chief Bridges said last week that the problems in reporting homicide arrests were caused in part by the department's antiquated computer system, which also keeps statistics on rape and other crimes.
"I can't imagine the problem is only limited to homicide," Bridges said. "It's the same central processing system. We don't have a separate system for rape."
Wendy Wagenheim, spokesperson for the Detroit chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, said her organization had serious concerns about the police department's misreporting.
"In order to adequately evaluate, you've got to have a decent system of measurements," Wagenheim said in an interview.
The ACLU also is concerned that Detroit's inflated arrest numbers may reflect widespread use of unconstitutional detentions of witnesses. Police have acknowledged that questionable detention practices were used by some homicide detectives, and Wagenheim said it is unclear if the practice extends to rape cases.
"That's something that should be evaluated," she said. "We're looking at any practice of the police that violates the rights of people."
Mark Fazlollah is an award-winning investigative reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer
For more information, visit:
Bureau of Justice Statistics:
Investigative stories on falsification of rape statistics, information for women's advocates.
The Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN):
Arming Women Against Rape and Endangerment:
The Rape Recovery Help and Information Page:
National Clearinghouse on Marital and Date Rape: