SAN FRANCISCO -- The Oakland Police Department has reopened 203 rape cases, many involving prostitutes or women who abuse drugs, after admitting that the cases were dropped without even minimal investigation.
The admission yesterday by the department that it had mishandled so many cases, including 37 in which the victim was never interviewed, followed the publication of several articles this week in the San Francisco Examiner.
"Candidly, we blew it," said Police Chief George Hart, who has promised immediate reforms, including the retraining of investigators and more stringent review of their work.
The swift action by the department, beleaguered by a sharp rise in drug-related crime, was hailed by rape counselors in the Bay Area and elsewhere, who said that the criminal justice system often ignored poor, minority rape victims who used drugs or engaged in prostitution.
The counselors say the police and prosecutors tend to give these cases little attention because they are often unsuccessful in court, with victims who are themselves criminals, often uncooperative, untruthful and unsympathetic.
"It's always been easier to write off people who don't fit in with whatwe think is an appropriate lifestyle," said Marcia Blackstock, the executive director of an Oakland group called Bay Area Women Against Rape. "I'm sure it happens everywhere.
"But the department here deserves a lot of credit for saying they messed up," Ms. Blackstock continued. "An easier way would have been for them to try to fix the numbers or make excuses."
The numbers, collected by the Examiner during a four-month investigation, show that the Oakland Police Department last year listed 24.44 percent of its rape reports, or 143 of 585, as "unfounded."
According to federal crime reporting requirements, a report is considered unfounded if an investigation finds that a rape never happened.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation said Oakland's rate of declaring rape cases without merit is unusually high, 2 1/2 times the national rate of 9 percent.
The bureau said it would take two weeks to provide comparable data for specific cities.
Oakland police officials said the national statistics were misleading because many departments abandon rape cases without officially listing them as unfounded.
The reports are instead listed as "filed pending further investigation," they said.