2000 IRE National Conference 

Tip Sheet: Policing the Police panel

To: Reporters who cover the police
From: Olea Benson, Mark Fazlollah, Michael Matza and Craig R. McCoy, reporters, The Philadelphia Inquirer
Date: June 2, 2000
Re: How to examine how a police department handles rapes cases.

 

    Not all feminist battles were won in the 1970s. Many police departments, while publicly claiming to take rape seriously, continue  to dump cases and dismiss victims.

    In some cities and towns, the only thing that has changed is the tactics used to hide rapes.
    How do you determine if your city has a' problem?    Talk to current and retired police, victims, and their advocates, prosecutors and defense lawyers, academics and other experts,  and so on.
    Moreover, see how your town compares statistically with norms for the nation.
 

Some keys to detecting a problem .

 

    Take a look at the overall rape rate in your area.

    For example, the latest FBI statistics for 1999 show that Minneapolis reports four time more rapes per capita than New York. That can't be true.
    Year after year, Minnesota (along with Nevada and Washington) reports about $0 rapes per 100,000 residents.
    Yet New York (along with New Jersey, Wisconsin and West Virginia) reports about 20 rapes per 100,000 population.
    In reality, women are not twice as safe in New York than Minnesota. In fact, the Minnesota numbers are driven by the stats out of Minneapolis. We learned from our reporting that Minneapolis is considered to operate a model program in the official response to rape - thereby encouraging more women to come forward.
    Rape isn't like murder.A low reported rape rate 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 point is if your town's reported rape rate is dramatically lower or higher than national norms, that's a sign that you should start asking questions.
 

  How to go deeper...

 

    Here are some further tests to see if things are funky.

    Check out the FBI's "Return A" data, a far more detailed source of information that made public each year in the agency's better-known Crime in the United States printed publication.This data, only available in digital form, can be purchased from NICAR, as well as the FBI..
    It shows, among other things, the rate of "unfounded" crime reports - police jargon for saying a victim filed a- false report. Nationally, police departments say about 10 percent of all rape reports are lies. In 1998, Philadelphia reported that 18 percent of all rapes were unfounded. That was the highest percentage of any of America's 10 largest cities. After we reported that, Philadelphia police reviewed all unfounded rapes for 1998. The commissioner announced that many rapes were wrongly classified as unfounded. And in 1999, the Philadelphia department's unfounded rate dropped to 10 percent.
    Other departments, however, still report high rates of "unfounded" rapes. "Return A" 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 before our reporting. In reality, Milwaukee women don't lie about rape any more than any other city.
    By the same token, departments reporting very low rates of "unfounding" may be fiddling with the numbers, too.
    For instance, Houston "unfounds" only one-half of one percent of all rape reports. But, police there have told us, it has a separate method for discarding rape reports that are believed to be false. If the department doesn't think reports are really a crime, the department doesn't write up a formal police report. Instead police write an unofficial account, which they said need not be included in any statistics submitted to the FBI.
    Houston police insist their approach is legit.
    Philadelphia police followed a similar procedure. In response to our reporting, department auditors examined 2,500 complaints from victims similarly coded as "non- crimes' - and determined that only about 150 had been correctly coded.
    The "Return A" report also gives "clearance" rates - for crimes solved. This data to can be a pointer to problems.
    Nationally, about half the rapes are solved. When Philadelphia police were hiding rape reports, the department's clearance rate hit an astounding 80 percent. That's because the unit boosted its grade by dumping tough cases into non-crime codes or declaring them "unfounded."
    Many departments still report astronomical clearance rates. St. Paul, Minn. consistently reports that it clears around 100 percent.
    In 1997, for example, it reported that it solved 105 percent of its rape cases.
    Another point to check in "Return A" is the raw number of arrests made by police.
    (Don't be confused with the word "clearance," which technically means solved. Under the FBI rules, police may include in their  "clearance" percentages cases can they list as solved, even though no arrest was made. Police frequently do this in cases where a  woman has reported a rape and identified the suspect but doesn't want to prosecute. In cop-talk, such a case is listed as "exceptionally cleared.")
    In 1997, when Saint Paul reported its fabulous 105- percent clearance rate for rapes, it arrested only 47 suspects in the 240 cases it claimed to have solved.
    Other cases were "exceptionally cleared."
    Nationally that year, about 65 percent of cleared rape cases were solved by arrest. St. Paul was making arrests in only 20 percent of the "cleared" cases.
    Lastly, the FBI's "Return A" lists both attempted rapes and "completed" rapes.
    Nationally, 12 percent of all rape reports are attempted rapes and 88 percent are completed rapes.
    If a city varies dramatically from that norm, something may be amiss.
    Consider San Antonio. "Return A" data shows that police there consistently reports low rates of attempted rape. San Antonio has routinely reported that about 3 percent of its rapes were attempts and 97 percent were "completed."
    What's going on?
    It could be an effort to keep the rape count down - FBI rules are that both attempts and "completed" rapes count as rapes. By insisting that the intention of an attacker was not to rape but rather to molest, police can lower the count. This tactic at times was used in Philadelphia.
 

 How to put flesh on them statistical bones...

 

    Unless you are churning out a dissertation, statistics alone will win you no readers.

    You need to talk to peoplemost especially cops and  victims
    No more than a newspaper, Congress or any other organizations, police forces are not monolithic.Your job is to seek out the police who are willing to break racks and speak to you.
    To understand a special police unit, begin by tracking down retired officers who once served in the unit. Unhampered by reprisal from bosses, they can talk openly shoot the practices of the unit.They can alert you to specific cases that need inquiry and direct you to other officers, both former and current.
    Hunt for payroll information, etc., that lists police who serve in the unit under scrutiny.Then call then at work or visit them at home.Sure, many will decline to talk to you, but some will.Interview - and reinterview. Some people will only open up when you confront them with what you have learned since you first spoke with them.
    As police and others tip you to specific cases or crimes worthy looking into, learn as much as you can about the department's paper record-keeping procedures.Understand who writes an initial patrol report Of a crime (called a "48" in Philly) , and who writes the follow-up detective report (called a "49" in Philly.) Where are these filed? How many copies are kept? In which offices? Are you entitled to them?
    (We learned, to our surprise, that we could order any patrol crime-report, from the same police office that released car-crash  reports. At $15 each, we ordered hundreds)
    Unravel how these written reports make their way into the final citywide totals for crime in the ENS's Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) program.In Philadelphia, after prodding by the media, the police have made public the underlying crime-by-crime database used to construct the UCR report. Even though the police stripped it of case numbers, victims' names and specific addresses, it has proved a important resource.We now have a monster database of more than 1 million crime reports from 1991 to 1999.
    Consult the civilian groups that deal with crime victims - town watch groups, state and local victim-assistance agencies, hospitals.
 

   What else you can do…

 

    Use the online database of the justice reference service of the federal government. It is a goldmine of many pears of government-funded research on cops and courts. File a FOIA seeking correspondence between federal justice regulators and pour police department.By interviewing Justice Department experts beforehand, you can learn how to fine-rune your request to get results.People who cannot give you bard information directly may be a lot more comfortable advising you on background how to ask for it.

    Harvest from the dusty fields of academe.Seek out professors who are former cops. They should be thoughtful, secure and committed to public understanding of police work.By the same token, hunt for academic works on your police force.Two key documents that helped us understand the history of how the Philadelphia police handled rape were a 1968 article in the Penn Law Review and a 1979 book, The Aftermath of Rape, published by an obscure press.We learned of both via bibliographies in more well-known books on rape.
    For our work on rape, victims without hesitation signed consent forms that permitted us to obtain their emergency room records -- neutral, contemporaneous accounts that were invaluable in evaluating what had happened to them.
    Then, learn how to throw out 80 percent of your work, especially the statistical stuff, to focus on writing stories that are about people, and not just numbers.