Police May Ignore Rape Complaints to Boost Image

A prize-winning reporter writes that police rape statistics in some major cities may be low only because police simply ignore women's complaints. One city reporting a high number of rapes is also a city with a model program to assist victims.


PHILADELPHIA-Melody Madison was beaten and raped in a deserted Philadelphia playground. Philadelphia police handled her case in the same way they'd processed thousands of other sexual assault complaints-by pretending that nothing happened.

The city's Sex Crimes Unit said it could not contact Madison after a detective initially interviewed her in August 1995 at the hospital, where she was treated for a blow to the mouth that had knocked out four of her front teeth.

Without a second interview, police insisted, they could not be sure that a crime really occurred, even though the hospital's rape test was positive. Hence, the rape and beating were classified as a mere service call.

Madison's rape was one of several spotlighted by the Philadelphia Inquirer in articles last fall describing how this city's Sex Crimes Unit had dumped thousands of cases since its inception in 1981. The newspaper interviewed dozens of current and former police officials about the problem. In addition to dumping rape complaints into the statistical black hole of service calls, the newspaper reported that the department frequently labeled other rapes as being “unfounded”-police parlance for saying the victims were liars.

“To make your city look good, you would go under with sex-crime cases. Basically, it was public relations,” former Sex Crimes Unit supervisor George Pennington said. “If it was from a shady part of the city, who's going to complain? These people are from the inner city.”

Even more disturbing, however, is that a review of rape statistics nationwide indicates that strategy Pennington articulates may be standard operating procedure in some police departments in major cities across the nation.

Here, the police decided in December to reopen 2,500 rape cases going back five years, the statute of limitations in Pennsylvania. Of those, police auditors determined that 2,300 were crimes incorrectly handled.

When they were resurrected, police often were able to make arrests, catching suspected rapists whose actions had been unhampered for years.

This spring, detectives arrested William Fabian, 40, on charges of rape, indecent assault and other offenses in the attack on Madison. At a court hearing in April, Madison identified him as her attacker.

After his arrest, Madison said she was grateful that police found Fabian because the statute of limitations would have expired this summer.

“If it had been more than five years, he would have gotten away with it,” said Madison, now 39. “Thank the Lord, he won't go after anyone else.”

As a result of the publicity, police here in May agreed to permit a coalition of local women's groups to review all rape complaints that the department declared to be “unfounded.” “This is only the beginning of our review,” Carol E. Tracy, director of the non-profit Women's Law Project in Philadelphia, said after her coalition began its work, prompting police to reopen several cases. “There's a lot more to do.”

The coalition is planning to do regular spot-check audits of the sex crime units cases to determine if they were being improperly dumped in other categories.

The problems in Philadelphia were serious, but they may not be rare.

A review of the latest FBI statistics, from 1999, show wild disparities in the levels that cities are reporting rapes. Minneapolis, for example, reported four times more rapes per capita than New York City.

Minneapolis was one of the first cities to implement the program of the Sexual Assault Nurse Examiners, considered a model project and thereby encouraging more women to come forward.

Police Commissioner John F. Timoney came to Philadelphia after many years as a top commander in New York. He pointed out that Manhattan's population was about the same as this city's but was reporting two thirds fewer rapes. “Manhattan has 1.6 million residents, 33 million tourists, 6 to 8 million people coming in on a daily basis. Lots of prostitutes. Compare it to Philadelphia. How many rapes were reported in Manhattan last year. 235, can you believe that?” Timoney asked.

Obviously, Timoney had his doubts.

However, Sgt. Brian Burke, a New York police department spokesman, insisted that his department properly investigated rape complaints.

“With any allegation of rape, detectives would investigate,” Burke said. “We're bound by New York state penal law of what constitutes a rape.”

Official figures show that Timoney provided slightly incorrect figures for rapes reported in Manhattan, but his point appears on target. The department reported 334 rapes in the borough last year. That is still a third of Philadelphia's reported attacks.

But Burke said he was unsure what would happen to a rape complaint if detectives investigated it and still couldn't conclusively prove that a rape occurred. The unclear cases here-such as victims who were under the influence of drugs and couldn't remember details of their attacks-often were mothballed, he added.

Rape isn't like murder, and a low rate of reported rapes is not necessarily a good thing. It may simply reflect police hiding complaints or a fear by victims to report attacks in the first place to unsympathetic departments.

Conversely, a high rate may reflect an excellent job by officials.

The FBI each year receives crime data from 16,000 police departments, but the bureau does little to monitor the accuracy of the reporting. That police data, however, can help women's advocates to spot possible problems in the police reporting of rapes in other cities. Nationally, police departments say about 10 percent of all rape reports are “unfounded”-or lies.

In 1998, Philadelphia reported that 18 percent of all rapes were unfounded. After the Inquirer reports, Philadelphia's rate dropped to 10 percent for 1999.

Other departments, however, still report high rates of “unfounded” rapes. FBI data shows, for example, that Milwaukee has consistently reported that nearly 50 percent of all rapes were “unfounded.” Milwaukee police insist that the department's numbers are accurate, just as Philadelphia insisted its were correct until the newspaper showed the errors. In reality, Milwaukee women don't lie about rape any more than other cities.

By the same token, departments that report extraordinarily low rates of “unfounding” should be questioned.

For instance, Houston “unfounds” only one-half of one percent of all rape reports. But, Houston police say they have another method for shelving false rape reports.

If Houston police don't think a rape report is really a crime, they don't need to write up a formal police report. Instead they write an unofficial account, which they maintain need not be included in any statistics submitted to the FBI. Houston police insist their approach is legitimate.

With police ignoring complaints, rapists escape detection-and most likely strike again.

That was tragically demonstrated here.

DNA tests established that the man who murdered a University of Pennsylvania student in May 1998 had previously sexually assaulted several other women in the same upscale neighborhood near downtown Philadelphia. In one of the earlier cases, the Sex Crimes Unit coded the woman's complaint as a simple service call, stamped it “inactive” and mothballed it. In a second attack before the murder, sex crimes detective dumped the case, and street cops later listed it as a minor burglary.

The man went on to rape two other women in the same neighborhood before murdering the student while sexually assaulting her. Her parents are suing the Philadelphia police.

The killer linked through DNA evidence, meanwhile, raped an 18-year-old student last August in the same downtown neighborhood, his sixth known victim. He still has not been caught.

Mark Fazlollah and a team of reporters at the Philadelphia Inquirer won the Selden Ring Award, administered by the University of Southern California for the reporting on rape. They were also a finalist for the Pulitzer and haswon numerous state and local awards.