Concerned that police departments nationwide fail to fully investigate rapes, a congressional committee will examine the issue next week at a hearing spurred partly by a Baltimore Sun examination of the systemic underreporting of sex crimes.
The Senate Crime and Drugs subcommittee has asked representatives of the Office of Violence Against Women to appear in Washington to discuss the problem, as well as a Pennsylvania woman jailed by police who erroneously accused her of making a false rape report.
The Sun reported in July that Baltimore for years led the nation in the percentage of rape cases in which police concluded that the victim was lying, with more than 3 in 10 cases determined to be "unfounded." Other cities have seen disturbingly high percentages of uninvestigated or dropped race cases in years past, and a women's advocate in Philadelphia pushed for the congressional hearing after the Sun's investigation reignited concerns.
The newspaper's report "made me believe that all of the issues [in other cities] were not just idiosyncratic problems, but that there is likely a chronic and systemic failure in police departments," said Carol E. Tracy, head of the Women's Law Project in Philadelphia. "I think it's important to expose it, and to encourage the federal government, which has very little jurisdiction around this, to nevertheless exercise greater accountability on the data that it does receive."
Tracy's group reviews rape reports marked as unfounded by Philadelphia police. The hearing was authorized by Sen. Arlen Specter, the Pennsylvania Democrat and former prosecutor who heads the Judiciary Committee.
The Sun analysis showed that four out of 10 calls to 911 over a five-year period had not generated a police report, having been dismissed by officers at the scene. Victims have reported being interrogated by detectives about their motives and truthfulness, while others said patrol officers ignored their allegations.
Since the problem surfaced, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake ordered the police department to conduct an audit of rape cases, and a task force of police, prosecutors and victim's advocates last week launched an effort to track down about 100 victims of cases that were labeled "unfounded" since early 2009.
Police have sent officers to training, and changed policies to prohibit patrol officers from not writing reports.
"We have failed sexual assault victims in Baltimore," Police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III told city councilmembers at a City Hall hearing last month. "And we have an enormous amount of work to do with our partners to restore the public trust and confidence."
The Senate hearing, scheduled for Tuesday, will include testimony from Susan B. Carbon, director of the national Office of Violence Against Women; Philadelphia Police Commissioner Charles H. Ramsay and a Pennsylvania woman who was imprisoned by police who said she made a false report of rape. A serial rapist later confessed to the crime.
It was not clear whether Baltimore officials were invited to take part in the hearing; a spokesman for Specter did not return calls Tuesday night. Maryland Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin, a Democrat, is among the legislators who sits on the crime and drugs subcommittee.
"Rape is a very serious crime and should be treated as such. Failure to properly investigate such crimes should never occur; it emboldens would-be perpetrators and discourages victims from stepping forward," Cardin said in a statement Tuesday night, adding that the hearing "is essential to bringing attention to chronic problems within our justice system."
A review of national FBI data shows significant disparities in rates of unfounded rapes. Though most cities have a percentage in the single digits, some, including New York and Cleveland, report zero — a figure that experts say is just as troublesome as Baltimore's high rate. The FBI does little to monitor the accuracy of reporting.
Baltimore's numbers stand out. The percentage of cases investigated by detectives each year that are deemed unfounded is five times the national average. Only Louisville and Pittsburgh have reported similar numbers in the recent past, and the number of unfounded rape cases in those cities dropped after police implemented new classification procedures.
Meanwhile, rapes have declined 8 percent nationally since 1995, but have tumbled 80 percent in Baltimore.
Baltimore is also one of only two cities in the country, out of more than 270 with a population of 100,000 or more, that records significantly more homicides than rapes. The other is New Orleans, where police have also faced questions. More than half the rape reports there have been classified as noncriminal "complaints," the Times-Picayune reported last year.
The rates of rapes per 100,000 people in Philadelphia and St. Louis — two cities that were found in recent years to be manipulating rape data and have made reforms — are more than double that of Baltimore.
In Philadelphia, the Inquirer newspaper showed that thousands of cases had been dumped by the sex crimes unit. Police in 1999 reopened 2,500 cases going back five years, the statute of limitations in Pennsylvania; of those, police auditors determined 2,300 were incorrectly handled.
Tracy's Women's Law Project was permitted to review all rape complaints that the department determines are "unfounded," a police term meaning the claim was baseless.
She said she has been collecting information as journalists and advocates in other cities contact her with similar problems.
"Given the apparent prevalence of the mishandling of rape complaints, we are concerned that the FBI is not exercising its auditing responsibilities as it collects and analyzes data," Tracy wrote to Specter in late July.
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