(WOMENSENEWS)–Sarah Reedy was working at a Gulf Station in Cranberry, Pa., in 2004 when a man came into the store and held the 19-year-old at gunpoint. After robbing the register, he held the gun to her temple and forced her to give him oral sex.
She immediately called 911. Detective Frank Evanson didn’t believe her story.
Instead, he accused her of stealing the money herself. Police arrested her six months later for theft, despite several rape cases mirroring her own. She was in jail for five days before being released on bail, all while four months pregnant. Her long road came to an end when her attacker, a serial rapist, was caught and confessed to the assault.
Reedy told her story at a Sept. 14 Senate committee hearing on the under-reporting of rape and poor police response to rape accusations.
Several others witnesses testified alongside Reedy concerning the repeated and systemic mishandling of sex crimes across the country. These included Scott Berkowitz, president of Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network in Washington, D.C.; Lawanda Ravoira, director of the National Council on Crime and Delinquency Center for Girls in Jacksonville, Fla.; and Susan B. Carbon, director of the Office of Violence Against Women in Washington, D.C.
At one point in the proceedings Democratic Sen. Al Franken of Minnesota voiced worries, echoed by others, that some police departments bill victims for a rape kit that can be used as criminal evidence and expect them to seek reimbursement.
Crimes Go Uninvestigated
Carol Tracy, executive director of the Women’s Law Project, a rights group in Philadelphia, petitioned for the hearing.
Tracy was made aware of this problem by a Philadelphia Inquirer story about thousands of rapes and other sex crimes that were not investigated by the city police department in 1999.
"Thousands of sexual assault cases–almost one third of all reports from the mid-1980s through 1998–were buried in a non-crime code. The victims were never advised that their complaints had been shelved," Tracy told lawmakers at the hearing.
Philadelphia was not alone. Newspapers across the country contacted Tracy with similar stories about the shelving of rape reports in New York City, Baltimore, New Orleans, St. Louis, Milwaukee and Cleveland.
"Initially I thought the reports of egregious police conduct were isolated incidents. However, viewing the totality of the news accounts, it is clear that we are seeing chronic and systemic patterns," said Tracy.
The Baltimore Sun found the number of rape cases reported had declined by 80 percent since 1992, while the percentage of rape cases classified as "unfounded," or not worthy of investigation, had tripled.
The New York Times reported that the number of rapes in New York City declined more than 35 percent between 2005 and 2009, yet the number of sex crimes classified as misdemeanors rose 6 percent with a dramatic increase in forcible rape complaints classified as "unfounded."
The panel of witnesses testified about several problems with sex crimes, including a general reluctance to discuss the issue, the lack of standard criminal definitions and inaccurate statistics.
Rape Definition Fuels Undercounting
Eleanor Smeal, president of the Feminist Majority Foundation in Arlington, Va., testified that the out-of-date definition of rape in the Uniform Crime Report, or UCR–the FBI’s collection of data from the nation’s police departments–results in a severe undercounting of rapes.
"In the Uniform Crime Report Program, only forcible rape is counted. The UCR instructions to law enforcement ensure that the definition will be interpreted narrowly," said Smeal. She added that forced anal sex, forced oral sex, vaginal or anal fisting and rape with an object could all be excluded. Such exclusions, she said, can create the perception that rape is a much smaller problem than it really is and requires fewer policing resources.
Following the exposure of Philadelphia’s failures in 1999, Commissioner Charles H. Ramsey enacted changes that he urged the committee to consider. He encouraged collaboration among government, advocacy and prevention groups to help victims, all while keeping the process transparent.
"We must all be advocates for anyone who has been impacted by this kind of violence," said Ramsey. "Our partnerships have strengthened every part of the process, from reporting each case of sexual assault, irrespective of the circumstances to a thorough investigation by well-trained specialized detectives, and finally working with our medical and mental health providers in minimizing the trauma experience by victims of the heinous crime."
Arlen Specter, chairman of the Judiciary Committee, is calling to change the FBI’s definition of rape in order to gather more accurate statistics.
The 80-year-old Pennsylvania Democrat also wants to assign federal funding for police departments across the country for better resources and expert training in prosecuting offenders and offering assistance to victims.
"This is a subject of enormous importance. We have not even begun to scratch the surface," Specter said in his closing statement.
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Colleen Flaherty is a Women’s eNews editorial intern and journalism major at Minnesota State University, Mankato.
For more information:
"Rape in the United States: The Chronic Failure to Report and Investigate Rape Cases" Hearing:
Women’s Law Project: