2000 IRE National
Sheet: Policing the Police panel
Reporters who cover the police
Olea Benson, Mark Fazlollah, Michael Matza and Craig R. McCoy, reporters,
The Philadelphia Inquirer
June 2, 2000
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.
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
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
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
Another point to check in "Return A" is the raw number of arrests made
(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
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"
Lastly, the FBI's "Return A" lists both attempted rapes and "completed"
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.
to put flesh on them statistical bones...
Unless you are churning out a dissertation, statistics alone will win you
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
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