Robbed, Raped and Jailed: Are Police Departments Underestimating Rape Cases?

Senate Subcommittee Holds Hearing on Uninvestigated Rape Cases

September 14, 2010, 9:57 AM

WASHINGTON, Sept. 14, 2010 — -- It was July 14, 2004, when Sara Reedy's life changed forever.

The then 19-year-old was working her usual 3:00 p.m. to 11:00 p.m. shift at a gas station in Cranberry Township, Penn. She was by herself, when, near the end of her shift, a man walked in, pulled a gun, told her to sit in the corner and took all the cash in the store. He then put the gun to her head and sexually assaulted her.

For Reedy, the attack was just the beginning of a long nightmare. When she reported the incident to the police, the detective assigned to her case refused to believe her. Instead, he accused her of taking drugs, stealing money from the store and then fabricating the sexual assault story as a cover.

The detective pressured Reedy to confess and when she didn't, he got an arrest warrant and put her in jail for theft, receiving stolen property and filing a false police report. Reedy was four months pregnant with her first child.

Reedy's serial rapist, however, struck again and was caught. It was only after he confessed to raping Reedy, that she was released.

Today, Reedy told her emotional story to a Senate Judiciary subcommittee, which held a hearing on uninvestigated rape cases and whether police departments in major cities are underestimating and ignoring such rape cases.

"After this experience, it left me concerned if I would ever be able to rely on an officer to do his job," Reedy said. "Because of (the detective's) uncooperative attitude and unwillingness to believe me, the victim, a serial rapist was allowed to continue attacking and assaulting other women."

According to The Women's Law Project, Reedy's story is not unique.

"There is no question that sexual stereotypes and bias are a root cause of police mishandling of sex crimes," Carol E. Tracy, executive director of the Pennsylvania-based group, told Senators. "The view that sex crimes are marginal issues permeates police departments across the country and contributes to the underreporting of rape and sexual assault."

On Monday, the FBI said that violent crimes reported to the police were down for a third straight year, dropping 5.3 percent in 2009. Reported cases of rape dropped by 2.6 percent.

Attorney General Eric Holder said that smarter policing practices and investments in law enforcement played a significant role in reducing violent and property crime, according to the Associated Press. But not everyone believes those figures, and media investigations in several different cities have shown the situation to be in stark contrast.

Tracy today argued that the data is not reflective of actual rape cases because firstly, law enforcement agencies are not required by law to submit data -- they do so voluntarily -- and secondly, rape cases are undercounted by police, thus compounding the inaccuracy of the FBI statistics.

"The combination of bias and an unrealistic definition result in highly unreliable data on the incidence of sex crime in America," Tracy said.

Sen. Arlen Specter, D-Penn., who is chairing today's hearing, had questions about some of those figures too.

"Studies have established that the annual rate of rapes has not decreased in the last 20 years and the lifetime prevalence of rape, in fact, has increased by more than 25 percent. These statistics conflict with official government data that show annual decreases in the rape rate," said a press release about the hearing.

Senate to Hold Hearing on Rape Cases

Last July, a lengthy investigation by The Baltimore Sun revealed that police in that city were ignoring rape claims and refusing to pass them on to investigators.

Before the newspaper's exhaustive investigation in June, reported rape cases in Baltimore were down by 15 percent for the year. But a headline in this morning's Baltimore Sun reads that reports of rapes in the city are actually up by 20 percent this year, a sharp increase since new police procedures were sparked by the Baltimore Sun investigation.

A similar investigation by the Philadelphia Inquirer in 2000 revealed that the police department in that city "downgraded" rapes for nearly two decades, and secretly dumped thousands of cases of rape with hardly any investigation.

Tracy told Senators today that police departments in several big cities, including St. Louis, New Orleans, Milwaukee, Cleveland and New York are employing similar tactics "to sweep reports of rape under the rug."

Sexual assault is one of the most under reported crimes, according to the U.S. Department of Justice, even though one out of every six American women has been the victim of an attempted or completed rape in her lifetime.

The Women's Law Project and other groups helped uncover 681 cases that were misclassified by the Philadelphia Police Department, and 1,700 other cases that should have been investigated as other sex crimes. Today, the organization requested that the FBI do a nationwide audit to investigate what they see as discrepancy and bias in their data.

The hearing today was one of the last chaired by Specter before he leaves office at the end of the year.

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