July 11, 2000 -- Reports of rape in Philadelphia are up 27 percent this year, but not necessarily because more people are being assaulted.
A review of police files has revealed 2,000 reported sex crimes went uninvestigated during a three-year period, prompting Philadelphia’s police department to change the way it approaches crime complaints by women.
The Philadelphia Inquirer first uncovered the uninvestigated crimes late last year. According to the Inquirer, with the high rate of reported rapes, understaffed members of Philadelphia’s Sex Crime Unit felt pressure to keep the department’s crime numbers low.
So, they ignored thousands of rape complaints, either rejecting them as “unfounded” or categorizing them as non-crimes that required further investigation. This non-crime category, referred to by police in laymen’s terms as “investigation of person” usually meant that many of these cases went in limbo and were never investigated.
“They were put in a category 2701, and generally means it’s a non-crime category,” Philadelphia Police Commissioner John F. Timoney told ABCNEWS. “It would get coded 2701 with the expectation that an investigation would be conducted … Well, it would go into these categories, and some got investigated properly but the vast majority, because they were non-crime, it’s almost like when they [police] never did get around to it. And that went on going back to 1980.”
Wrongdoing Admitted Based on the newspaper’s investigation, Timoney ordered a review of police files and then acknowledged that the sex crimes unit had improperly handled sex complaints for years. Because of the statute of limitations on the cases, Timoney said, investigators focused on complaints filed between 1995 and 1997. Of the 2,000 reported sex crimes that were not investigated, 1,000 will be reopened. Officials also found 346 other rape complaints buried under paperwork, and expect to find more.
“We will probably end up with 500 [other] rapes over that three-year period,” Timoney said.
One of the most shocking ignored rape complaints involved a 7-year-old girl. Mary Williams’ daughter was allegedly raped by a family acquaintance and left at a Philadelphia park. When police were called, investigators say, they classified the alleged rape victim as a lost child and dropped her off with a neighbor. Even after the girl’s mother insisted that the rape allegation be investigated and provided the suspect’s name and address, police failed to question the suspect.
“We did the investigation,” Mary Williams said. “We gave the police department the information they needed to arrest this man, but they took it upon themselves to close the case.”
Teaming Up With Critics Mindful of the outrage over the ignored complaints, Timoney has taken an unusual approach toward combating the problem: he has invited women’s groups and other police critics to work with his officers as outside monitors and to give him input in their investigations.
“I felt that if we could get these various women’s groups to work with us as almost as outside monitors, they would have free access to all of our files, they would see how the investigations are being conducted, they would have input,” Timoney said. “The agreement is that if the women’s group monitors and the [police] captain and his lieutenants can’t come to an agreement on a particular case, then I will review that case personally and make a final determination.”
Despite the stunning admission of wrongdoing by his police force, Timoney’s handling of the situation and public outrage has earned the respect of his sometime critics.
“There is a great deal to be learned at the candor of the current police administration and Commissioner Timoney in admitting their wrongdoing,” said Carol Tracy of the Women’s Law Project.
So far, Philadelphia police have made 40 arrests on old rape cases, Timoney expects to make more.