Next Tuesday, September 14, WLP Executive Director Carol E. Tracy will testify at a Senate Judiciary hearing in Washington, DC, about police mishandling rape reports. The Women’s Law Project has been working on this issue since the Philadelphia Inquirer reported in 2000 that the Philadelphia Police Department (PPD) was wrongly labeling reported rapes and conducting little or no investigation of the reports.
Since that time, the WLP has been contacted by reporters in several other major American cities, including New York, Baltimore, New Orleans, St. Louis, Milwaukee and Cleveland, about police departments using similar tactics to sweep reports of rape under the rug:
In New York, according to articles in the New York Times and the Village Voice, police have been downgrading rapes from felonies to misdemeanors – or rejecting victims’ accounts as untrue.
In Baltimore, the Sun reported that police had dramatically reduced their annual tally of rapes while tripling the figure for complaints deemed false. The newspaper said that Baltimore police led the nation in the rate at which they called rape allegations “unfounded,” rejecting almost a third as false.
Despite years of feminist pressure over the issue of rape and the favorable portrayal of special-victims-unit officers on TV, advocates say that treatment of victims of sexual assault remains a major problem. Often, they say, women who report assaults can find themselves victimized a second time by police who label them liars or blame them for the attack.
The WLP led the advocacy effort that resulted in a reinvestigation of misclassified cases that found 681 cases should have been classified and investigated as rapes, while 1700 other cases should have been investigated as other sex crimes. Massive reforms took place, including an invitation for advocacy groups to review case files. Ten years later the review of files continues.
We are glad to see the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee, especially Senator Arlen Specter in his position as Chair of the Sub-committee on Crime and Drugs, paying attention to this issue affecting women across the United States. Sexual assault is a hugely underreported crime, with 60% of assaults not being reported to the police. Those who do report rape and sexual assaults are often re-victimized by a system in which they aren’t believed, their cases are not fully investigated, and the perpetrators are allowed to roam free, potentially committing more preventable crimes. This is exactly what happened to Sara Reedy, a Butler County woman who reported an assault to the police and ended up being arrested for false reporting. Her charges were only dropped when her assailant confessed to assaulting her and two subsequent women.
You should be able to watch the hearings live online here at 2:15 PM EDT on Tuesday, September 14, and we’ll keep you updated on any further developments.