By Mark Fazlollah
Monday, January 8, 2001
Growing evidence indicates that the problem of police departments dismissing and underreporting rapes is widespread. The reasons for the numbers game may range from a desire for the department to appear successful to the belief that women often lie.
PHILADELPHIA (WOMENSENEWS)--Jesine Williams, 12, is a remarkable child.
The tiny seventh grader told state prosecutors how the first Philadelphia police officer who responded to her January 1996 rape had refused to believe that any crime was committed. She told them how the initial investigator from Philadelphia's sex crimes unit also botched the case.
For nearly five years, Jesine had again and again insisted that she knew the name of the rapist--and last fall a DNA test proved that she was right. In December, a Philadelphia jury convicted Jasper Washington, the man Jesine first identified as her rapist in 1996. For four years, police did not bother to interview him.
Jesine, whose family allowed her to be identified by her middle name, had to do battle in order to jail her rapist.
Her fight is vivid evidence of a broken system in Philadelphia and perhaps in other cities where police ignore and dismiss rape complaints, fail to report rapes, miscategorize and disguise them and manipulate statistics in order to simplify their work or bolster their departments' or their cities' images. Often, police believe that alleged victims are lying and categorize reports as "unfounded."
And all of these questionable statistics are fed to the FBI, which each year receives crime data from 16,000 police departments. But the bureau does little to monitor the accuracy of the reporting.
Women's groups are not surprised.
"We've been hoodwinked for 18 years," said Carol E. Tracy, executive director of the Women's Law Project in Philadelphia. But she gave the police credit for admitting past errors. "Admitting the truth about the scandalous record in the face of public scrutiny took real courage."
Responding to public pressure, Philadelphia police in early 2000 began to allow local women's groups, including the Law Project, to monitor the rape squad. Each time a complaint was deemed to be false, the women's groups were able to check to ensure that a proper investigation had been completed. No other police department is believed to have been so open.
After Jesine's case was spotlighted in the Philadelphia Inquirer, police began acknowledging problems in the rape squad. Philadelphia police now concede that during the past five years, more than 700 rape cases were botched by the department's underfunded and poorly trained sex crimes unit. Jasper Washington, a 285-pound auto mechanic, and scores of other men have been arrested on rape charges in mishandled cases that were reopened because of Inquirer articles.
The reporting by the Inquirer was unique, but many of Philadelphia's problems are not.
New FBI and state crime data for 1999 and the first half of 2000 indicate that many major police departments distort the statistics in a variety of ways that make it impossible to tell how many rapes occur, whether police are investigating rape complaints seriously or how frequently the alleged victims lie.
Some police departments code rape complaints in ways that indicated they were little more than a conversation between a police officer and a citizen.
Philadelphia police initially labeled Jesine's rape as a "2701," a police code for a service call, not a crime. The first officer on the scene insisted that Jesine's case was only an incident involving a lost child. Philadelphia's 2701 code, also known as "investigation of person," was used for all 700 rapes that have been reinvestigated by police. Some of those cases, including Jesine's, date back five years.
The 2701 code is no longer used to hide rapes in Philadelphia. But that type of coding is used in other cities.
In Phoenix, the rape squad uses what it calls an "information only report" for tough cases, the ones detectives can't sort out. A former Phoenix sex crimes supervisor said in an interview that about a third of his city's sexual assault complaints were classified as "information only." He acknowledged that some of those cases might include cases of real rape, such as those of women who were victims of date-rape drug attacks but couldn't tell the police any of the details of the assaults.
Staffing shortages are another reason for under-reporting and non-reporting.
In Phoenix, eight detectives were assigned to the sex crimes unit in the 1980s, although the population has increased by more than 60 percent since. Still, there are still only eight detectives in the squad.
In Philadelphia, until December 1999, there were never more than nine detectives in the sex crimes unit. Most rape cases were handled by lower-paid patrol officers without the same training in investigations as detectives.
The problems also persist because there is little monitoring of crime reporting. The FBI does not undertake comparative studies of reporting in different cities, allowing some police departments to seriously abuse some loopholes in the FBI's reporting rules.
St. Paul, Minn., claimed throughout the 1990s that it was solving 90 to 100 percent of its rape cases. But year after year, the city's arrest rate for rape was far below the national average. The FBI never questioned those figures.
That was because of a loophole in the FBI's reporting rules, which permits police to "clear," or solve, cases without arresting suspects.
Responding to questions about reporting problems and lack of review, an FBI spokeswoman said that the agency had never asked any police department to clarify why it might have a high rate of "cleared" rapes without arrests. The FBI repeatedly states that it depends on state agencies to ensure that reporting is accurate. State agencies, which receive data from individual police departments and forward it to the FBI, have said they depend on police departments to report and make sure statistics are accurate.
In 1999, St. Paul police said they "cleared" 108 percent of the city's rapes: 200 rapes and 215 clearances. Yet, police arrested only 47 suspects for rape. For the first half of 2000, St. Paul said there were 107 rapes and 107 cleared cases.
At a November conference sponsored by the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, a Philadelphia Inquirer reporter presented details on the mishandling of rapes in Philadelphia and also cited St. Paul's unusual reporting pattern.
Once held up to public scrutiny, St. Paul police quickly acknowledged that in 1999 alone, the rape squad had wrongly classified about 100 rapes as being solved by "exceptional" means. That policy of misreporting, the department said, had been in practice for "as long as anyone can remember." By declaring the cases "cleared" without making arrests, it took the pressure off police to make more arrests in rape cases. Dozens of cases have since been reopened. (See "Police May Ignore Rape Complaints to Boost Image," Women's Enews, June 15, 2000.)
St. Paul is just one example of departments that report high rates of solving rapes but low rates of arrests. That misreporting can seriously affect the quality of police investigations.
Oklahoma City has consistently reported clearance rates higher than 75 percent but low rates of rape arrest. Nationally, only half of all rape cases are cleared, and there is about one arrest for every three rapes.
Oklahoma City reports one arrest for every seven rapes.
Capt. Pat Byrne, who oversees the Oklahoma City police rape squad, said in an interview that the unit suffered from under-staffing, insufficient training and low motivation. Byrne said the squad has been increased to 15 detectives. Two years ago, there were only eight.
"We knew there was a problem and they're working toward fixing it," Byrne said about his department's low arrest rate, a problem that previously had not been made public.
San Antonio claimed to have solved 64 percent of its rapes in 1999, but it made only one arrest for every five rapes. After years of having a low rate of arrests for rape, San Antonio reported a spectacular 18 percent drop in rapes in 1999. That was followed by a 37 percent drop in rapes in the first half of 2000.
Many other factors can account for low numbers of reported rapes.
Some cities really are much safer than others. But some police departments simply declare that large numbers of rape complaints are lies.
Nationally, police departments say less than 10 percent of all rape reports are false, or "unfounded." In 1998, Philadelphia reported that 18 percent of all rape reports were "unfounded." After the Inquirer reported that Philadelphia's rate was high, the police commissioner began reviewing "unfounded" rape reports. In 1999, Philadelphia's "unfounded" rate dropped to 10 percent. In 2000, the city's "unfounded" rate was down to 7 percent.
Some departments, however, still report high rates of "unfounded" rapes. Milwaukee has repeatedly reported that more than 40 percent of rape complaints were "unfounded." In Virginia Beach, Va., the rate is 35 percent. In all likelihood, however, Milwaukee and Virginia Beach women probably don't lie about rape any more than women in other cities.
At the same time, extraordinarily low rates of "unfounded" rapes can be problematic.
Houston labels only one-half of one percent of all rape reports as "unfounded." But if Houston police don't think a rape complaint is really a crime, they don't need to write up a formal police report. Houston says cases that fall into that category need not be included in FBI statistics. There is no need to declare them to be unfounded. It's just an information report, similar to the 2701.
Rape complaints that are not coded as crimes are never reported to the FBI. Thus, FBI statistics on rape must always be analyzed with a critical eye and reporting compared from one city to another.
Philadelphia Police Commissioner John F. Timoney carefully watches the statistics of his own department and of others nationwide. He previously served as deputy commissioner of the New York Police Department.
Timoney noticed that statistics for the first half of 2000 showed that Philadelphia reported more than three times more rapes per capita than New York. When New York's figures were analyzed on a borough-by-borough basis, the contrast was even more dramatic.
At a Philadelphia City Council hearing in December on the problems of the police rape squad, Timoney scoffed at New York's statistics. Timoney said Manhattan, with the same population as Philadelphia, was reporting only a fourth as many rapes.
"It's got all sorts of clubs going on. Six to eight million people come in on a daily basis, restaurants, night clubs, 33 million tourists a year come into" Manhattan, Timoney said. "How many rapes do you think will be reported in Manhattan this year, given all the activity that's going on there--date rape activity and all of that? About 250."
Timoney gave reporters this tid-bit about his old department: It didn't use 2701 or an "information only" code, but it did use a code known as "information-aided," or commonly called "aided." All types of ambiguous cases were shelved there. The "aided" category, he said, didn't mean that friendly New York street cops had helped some tourists with information or aid. He said it included, among other things, ambiguous sexual assault complaints.
In 1999, New York reported a 17-percent decline in rapes, the biggest drop in recent memory. Then in the first half of 2000, it dropped another four percent. The New York Police Department insists that its rape statistics are correct. But its statistics do not mention anything about "aided" cases.
Mark Fazlollah is an award-winning investigative reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer.
Editor's note: To report this story, the Philadelphia Inquirer purchased national crime data from the FBI on bulky computer tapes. The information was sorted for all major cities using spreadsheets that made it possible to see patterns and highlights.
See also our article"New York Permits Gender Violence Victims to Sue" (Dec. 29, 2000):