An FBI subcommittee made recommendations Tuesday at a meeting in Baltimore to create a new federal definition of rape, moving the agency a step closer to updating the way it counts sex crimes for the first time in more than 80 years.
The new definition is expected to expand the number of crimes that would be reported as rapes to the FBI by local police agencies, though specifics were not available Tuesday night.
Experts say many states already track such crimes but don't submit them to the federal Uniform Crime Reporting data collection program as rapes because of its narrower definition. That, they say, misleads the public about the prevalence of rape and leads to fewer resources to investigate the crimes and catch the attackers.
"This is a huge step forward in accurately reflecting the true number of rapes that are occurring in our country," said Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, a law enforcement policy think tank.
Since 1927, the definition of rape used by the FBI has been "the carnal knowledge of a female, forcibly and against her will," which excludes incidents of anal or oral penetration, male rape, and incidents where force is not used. Wexler said 80 percent of police chiefs agreed that the definition was outdated and should be updated.
Women's advocates accelerated their push for a revised definition last year during a hearing on Capitol Hill, spurred in part by reporting by The Baltimore Sun showing how city police had for years dismissed a large number of rape cases as "unfounded." City officials have been reforming the way sex crimes are investigated and Police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III was among the law enforcement leaders who spoke out in support of the change. He attended Tuesday's meeting.
The changes were approved by a subcommittee of law enforcement officials and will next go to an advisory panel, which is expected to sign off on them and submit them to FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III for approval. Stephen Fischer, a spokesman for the UCR program, confirmed that recommendations were drafted as a result of the meeting but said he could not provide details.
The Women's Law Center in Philadelphia helped lead the push for an updated definition, and executive director Carol E. Tracy drove to Baltimore for the meeting, which officials said was held at the Tremont Plaza but was closed to the public.
Tracy noted that the expanded definition won't change any state laws.
"The states have been collecting this data, it's just that the UCR hasn't been collecting the data, and so each year it reflects this limited number of really serious sex crimes," Tracy said.
Eleanor Smeal, president of the Feminist Majority Foundation, said on a conference call Monday that advocacy groups say that better tracking will lead to greater resources. Police and crisis centers cite the federal statistics in applying for grants and other support.
"We want to make sure the crime of rape is measured in a way that it measures all rape, and it essentially becomes a crime in which more attention is paid. It's intolerable the amount of violence against women, and we feel this will have a significant impact."
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