US Senate Hearing Probes Botched Sex Crime Investigations
A disturbing number of police departments across the country are routinely downgrading or dismissing rape cases, according to testimony at a Senate Judiciary Subcommittee hearing.
Chaired by Pennsylvania Senator Arlen Specter, the subcommittee session focused on what it said was “The chronic failure (of police departments) to report and investigate rape cases.”
In his testimony, Philadelphia Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey, formerly the Police commissioner of Washington, D.C., also characterized the situation as a “pervasive failure” on the part of law enforcement.
Witnesses from the legal, law enforcement, medical and social services fields told the panel 20 million women — or 18 percent of all females in the country — have been victims of rape and that only 18 percent of rapes are even reported to police.
Speakers emphasized that the victimized individuals who make up that 18 percent often don’t have an easy time of it as their stories are dismissed as “unfounded” and their cases are downgraded from felonies to misdemeanors.
The Philadelphia-based Women’s Law Project executive director Carol Tracy said newspaper investigations and reports from St. Louis, New Orleans, New York, Baltimore, Cleveland and Ohio documented officers misclassifying or “unfounding” a large percentage of all rape complaints they received.
“When 45 cities with populations over 100,000 have unfounded rates of rape over 20 percent, there’s something very wrong,” she said.
“The statistics are staggering,” said Specter.
Two sexual assault victims testified at the hearing; their contrasting stories highlighted the importance of law enforcement agencies providing appropriately sensitive support to such traumatized individuals.
Julie Weil of Florida was treated for her physical and mental health following her rape, and investigators stayed on her case until her attacker was brought to justice. Sara Reedy of Pennsylvania said she was further victimized by a local detective who arrested her for theft and filing a false police report. She said she was cleared soon after when her attacker was caught and confessed to a series of rape incidents including her own.
This disparity, said Maryland Senator Ben Cardin, demonstrates why is important to have a new national sex crime reporting system that can help to police the way police departments handle rape cases.
“One of the most important functions of the Senate is to provide oversight,” he said. “Whether the laws are being enforced, whether agencies are pursuing the cases, whether victims are being properly acknowledged. That’s why we’re having this hearing, to make sure the system is working right.”
In Cardin’s home base of Baltimore, a recent newspaper investigation found that a full third of reported rape cases were dismissed – the highest rate of dismissals of any city in the country.
“The Baltimore Sun put a spotlight on this and as a result there was action,” Cardin said. “But we want to make sure this is a priority in every jurisdiction around the country.”
Investigative reporting also served to shed light on the problem in Philadelphia, where a series by the Philadelphia Inquirer resulted in changes in personnel and procedures.
Police Commissioner Ramsey told the hearing he does see improvement. Of the many changes he made to address the Philadelphia crisis, he says the most effective was working with the Women’s Law Project and other women’s groups.
“I firmly believe that partnerships between law enforcement agencies and victim advocacy counterparts are absolutely essential in addressing some of the most pressing issues that confront us,” he said.
Now, groups like the Women’s Law Project can audit Pennsylvania police records and request the reopening of cases that have been deemed “unfounded.”
But Tracy sees much more work to be done.
“It should not be the responsibility of investigative reporters to look at this,” she said. “The [Uniform Crime Reporting Program of the FBI] is not exercising their audit responsibility.”
In her testimony she called on Congress to require a regular FBI audit of police practices to ensure rape cases are being properly reported and investigated, and to update and broaden the legal definition of rape that has been on the books since 1927.
Specter said focusing on the terminology was a good first step.
“The definition of rape which is being used by the FBI is antiquated, not inclusive, as to where it ought to be,” he said.
He promised that his Judiciary Subcommittee would communicate with the FBI about the issue.