By Mark Fazlollah
Monday, February 19, 2001
For years, Philadelphia police had been lying about rape, burying or shelving cases to improve crime stats. To counter a crisis of public confidence, the commissioner created the nation's first women's review of rape reports. Arrests went up.
PHILADELPHIA (WOMENSENEWS)--Welcome to the home of the Special Victim's Unit of the Philadelphia Police Department.
Women and girls reporting sexual abuse enter a forbidding 1815 armory, with fortress-like walls topped with barbed wire and a dingy courtyard where a private crematorium churns smoke into the sky. They undergo security checks, move through hot and cramped quarters to a tiny waiting room with stained furniture and toys. Nearby, there's a busy, too-small bathroom. Sometimes, while they wait, they might recognize a handcuffed rape suspect leaning in the corridor.
A new home in a new location has been authorized and a move is planned before August.
But here, women's advocates, both lawyers and rape counselors, undertook the nation's first monitoring of police rape investigations by advocacy groups. Beginning last spring, the women reviewed 105 rape cases from 1999 that had been classified as "unfounded." They had all the information, except the names.
They forced police to reopen some cases, and at least one arrest has been made.
These cases were part of a larger review of 2,000 cases, some involving serious sexual assault that had been wrongly classified, from 1995 to 1997. Many were never investigated. Of the 2,000 cases, about 1,300 were considered serious assaults--including about half re-classified as felony rapes. As a result, up to 75 people have been arrested and are being prosecuted. They will continue reviewing unfounded reports for the year 2000 and making spot checks of other reports of sexual assault
The review by the women and by the department itself also helped to discredit arguments that many women lie about rape. It also became clear that many who were raped later recanted in situations that were apparently were fraught with domestic violence or child abuse, the advocates said.
Carol E. Tracy, director of Philadelphia's nonprofit Women's Law Project and de facto leader of the monitoring group said, "This was truly the unmasking of a scandal of national proportions--so many very, very serious crimes were never investigated."
"The real hero is the Philadelphia Inquirer," she added, for uncovering the hidden and ignored crimes. She also praised City Councilman Angel Ortiz, chair of the public safety committee, who called for public hearings.
The Inquirer had uncovered the regular dumping of cases and massive misclassifications by overworked police who were pressured to generate favorable, low crime statistics.
The newspaper determined that almost from its inception in 1981, the sex crimes unit had rejected large numbers of rapes, attempted rapes and other reported sexual assaults as being "unfounded," meaning that police believed that the women had fabricated the rape complaints. Investigators also used an even more oblique method, treating rape reports as though they were requests for information, not crimes.
Philadelphia Police Commissioner John F. Timoney, confronting the scandal and crisis of confidence, announced last March he would let women's groups essentially look over the shoulders of police investigators and supervisors as they evaluated rape complaints. He called it "a real crisis of public confidence when it comes to the Special Victims Unit . . . a huge crisis of confidence" because for years the police had lied and underreported rapes.
The idea of any civilian monitoring is anathema to most police who regarded it as uninformed, bleeding-heart meddling. At the outset, the cops in the Special Victims Unit worried the women would wreck policing.
"Most of the people on the team had never reviewed a police file before," said Carole Johnson, director of the Philadelphia chapter of Women Organized Against Rape and a member of the review team. "If you're on our side, with WOAR, the majority of the victims never go to police. And if they go to police, we never review the record."
Today, the advocates have won grudging acceptance from even the most hard-boiled investigators. Some even have gone so far as to respect the advocates after they won city approval to move the unit's headquarters out of the pre-Civil War arsenal and into a new office building.
In May, police allowed all 105 "unfounded" rape cases from 1999 to be reviewed by the advocates, including Tracy, Johnson, representatives of the Penn Women's Center at the University of Pennsylvania and two child advocacy groups--the Support Center for Child Advocates and the Philadelphia Children's Alliance.
As far as it is known, never before had community representatives been given this type of access to American police files, said criminologist William Geller, former deputy director of the Washington-based Police Executive Research Forum. The closest anyone has come is in St. Louis, where police crime-report practices are regularly audited by teams from St. Louis University. But the director of that program, James F. Gilsinan, said there never had been an attempt to review investigative files of St. Louis rape cases.
They sat in an office and could watch the comings and goings of distraught women, girls and families, the arrest of suspects.
It was a strange journey for the advocates--and not just the physical surroundings were daunting.
The 105 files in question were guarded as if they were dark CIA secrets. Their confidentiality was protected in each rape complaint by deleting the women's names from the files--all other information in the cases was open for inspection and question. Moreover, the women whose complaints had been declared "unfounded" had never been told that their cases were dropped.
"We looked for those things are questionable. If it said the person recanted the story, well, then, why?" said Johnson, who counseled rape victims before becoming director of Women Organized Against Rape.
Even before finishing the 105 cases, the advocates began to see patterns.
In some cases, good investigations had proven that women had given police false information. For example, Tracy said, some young girls fabricated rape reports because they were afraid of their parents.
"With the teen-agers, some of them said that if they came home after being out all night they would be beaten," said Tracy, a Philadelphia women's rights activist since the 1970s.
"The vast majority were recantations," she said, adding that cases were "permeated with domestic violence, child abuse. One way or another they experienced significant violence." Tracy added, however, that the police "make a compelling argument that if an adult woman comes in here and says 'I was not raped,'" the police cannot usually pursue the initial complaint.
"If it looks like there is an issue of domestic abuse, did the officer provide the woman with referral information? We want to make sure the officer did not intimidate the person. If it's kids, so very often kids can change their story," Johnson added.
In some cases, police conducted investigations that were less than acceptable.
"Something jumped out of the file about how the woman was interrogated," Tracy said. "There's this issue in police training about the difference between interviewing and interrogating. Sometimes we sense it's more interrogation than interview."
And there were some cases, only six or seven, that showed incomplete investigative work, Tracy said. In those cases, police agreed to reopen the investigations.
Tracy said she was perplexed by the egregious cases that were dropped, such as the rape of a little girl by her caregiver's male companion.
"Laziness, misogyny, something in the culture of the unit, the department?" is a question she is not sure has an answer. Tracy added that psychologists are now identifying post-secondary trauma in helpers and care givers, such as psychologists themselves. "And these cops, macho, military... dealing with victims and perpetrators. There must be a burn out. Investigating the sexual assault of a child must be the worst job around."
Philadelphia, in its heyday of hiding rape complaints, reported that more than half of the women who came to police were liars. But last year, under intense scrutiny, the same department reported that only 7 percent of its cases were unfounded.
By the fall, the advocates had started reviewing the most nebulous cases, those in which police didn't believe any crime occurred.
In past years, the sex crimes unit had declared that hundreds of cases fell into that category, often thus masking real incidents of sexual assaults. Those cases included complaints of women being given drugs or other incidents in which women simply could not remember what had happened to them but believed assaults had occurred. Too often, the cases had been dropped with little investigation.
By the time the advocates were able to review those files, police brass had already conducted their own review of the cases and reclassified any that really were crimes. The cases that remained were truly vague. Many were cases dubbed as "medical investigation," in which the city service agencies had reported suspicions of child abuse.
The biggest change was in better investigative tactics, resulting in hundreds more arrests. Last year, Philadelphia police arrested 700 suspects on rape charges, twice as many as in 1997. Overall, the number of confirmed rapes soared from 650 in 1997 to more than 1,000 last year.
"They're classifying more as rapes, they're founding more of the case and they're arresting more suspects," said law project director Tracy.
"The community has to get involved, with the other advocacy groups and the media," added Johnson, of Women Organized Against Rape. "This really could set a model for the rest of the county."
Mark Fazlollah is an award-winning reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer.