WLP Executive Director on Reporting Rape

Carol Tracy, Executive Director of the Women’s Law Project, was quoted in an article this weekend in the New Orleans Times-Picayune. Rape statistics are down in New Orleans, but this may be due to a mislabeling of rapes and sex crimes rather than an actual decrease in reported incidents.

A classification, called Signal 21, exists in the New Orleans Police Department to classify complaints that don’t amount to a crime. Many other departments have similar classifications for disturbances, or suspicious activity calls that turn out not to be a crime, but police are using them to classify rape or sex crime calls in which the victim becomes uncooperative or has vague details that are difficult to verify.  This is not a correct use of a non crime category. The statistics reported in the article are as follows:

In 2008, police say, there were 146 cases marked up by the sex crimes unit as a Signal 21, compared with 97 rapes and sexual batteries ultimately listed as criminal offenses by the Police Department. That means police classified 60 percent of rape calls as a Signal 21.

This number, though hard to compare to a national standard, is still extremely high and has drawn the attention of sex crimes experts.

“Any way you look at it, it is just too high,” said Joanne Archambault, a consultant who previously [led] the San Diego sex crimes unit.

Archambault said departments need a noncriminal category for some situations, such as a call about a suspicious activity that turns out not to be a crime. But too often detectives will put cases into these alternative categories — or declare a rape case to be “unfounded,” meaning that it didn’t occur — when they can’t substantiate a claim of a sexual assault.

That may happen, she said, if they can’t track down a victim who reported the crime or the victim doesn’t continue cooperating after making an initial report. While those circumstances frustrate detectives, they don’t justify declaring cases invalid, she said.”

A similar trend was occurring in Philadelphia a decade ago and Carol Tracy commented on the investigation into misclassifying sex crimes that led to the significant changes in how the Philadelphia Police Department handles sex crimes.

…[I]n Philadelphia a decade ago after a series of newspaper reports that questioned a policy of the Police Department’s rape squad to classify about a third of the reported sex crimes under a noncriminal code that meant “investigation of person.” A police internal review of 2,000 such cases determined that 700 were actually rapes, while 500 were other sex crimes, according to news reports.

Then-Police Commissioner John Timoney all but eliminated the alternative coding of sex crimes, said Carol Tracy, executive director of the Women’s Law Project in Philadelphia.

Tracy and Archambault both said some departments have unfounded rates that are suspiciously high. For example, in Philadelphia the 2007 unfounded rate for rape was about 10 percent, according to FBI data. The national unfounded rate for rapes reported to the FBI in 2006 was about 5 percent.

The unfounded category, for what police believe to be false sexual assault reports, differs from Signal 21s, which involve a variety of other reasons for a non-criminal listing.

Tracy and Archambault said even cases in the unfounded group demand scrutiny, to ensure police made sound decisions.

Rape and other forms of sexual assault are crimes and should be treated as such by police. It may be frustrating when victims refuse to continue to aid in an investigation, or cannot fully recall the details of a truly horrific experience, but these cases should continue to be investigated instead of improperly dumped in a non crime category. When police don’t take sex crime complaints seriously, victims are deterred from reporting and the public is deceived as to the level of sex crimes in their communities.


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The Women's Law Project creates a more just and equitable society by advancing the rights and status of all women throughout their lives. To this end, we engage in high-impact litigation, advocacy, and education.
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