When Shannon Schieber moved into an apartment on a quiet, pretty little street in Philadelphia to pursue a doctorate at the prestigious University of Pennsylvania Wharton Business School nearby, she did not know that a serial rapist was stalking single women in the area.
Neither did the police. Eight months later the man broke into her home in the middle of the night, raped the 23-year-old, then choked her to death as she put up a tremendous fight.
Schieber was his fifth victim. There were to be seven others viciously assaulted after her. However, Schieber was the only one he killed, and the police blunders surrounding that case helped expose a scandal.
It emerged that the Philadelphia police department harbored a culture where rape victims were routinely belittled and their cases ignored by patrol officers and detectives, while predators got away with sexual assault and, literally, murder.
The crisis brought shame on the city, but it also sparked comprehensive reform of the police.
That was in 1998, and today, 15 years after Schieber’s death, the police department has been transformed from one that a previous chief admitted was “godawful” in its handling of sex crimes into one held up as an example to others.
Now Philadelphia is pressing other cities across the US not to wait for the kind of crisis that blighted its reputation before dealing with the sort of failures that led to it.
One of the city’s big weaknesses was tolerating a system where for years detectives had got away with filing rape cases under a non-criminal classification code that was the equivalent of sweeping them under the carpet.
“A police department that has problems and is making mistakes has got to recognize the need to change, and it has to start at the top,” said Charles Ramsey, Philadelphia’s police commissioner since 2008 and the president of the Police Executive Research Forum, which aims to spread best practices nationally.
“If they don’t take action, eventually it’s going to come to light anyway, resulting in scandals where the police have intentionally misclassified crimes — and you’re going to get a victim saying ‘there’s been no investigation, no follow-up,’” he said.
There is no shortage of current and recent examples of other police departments engulfed by similar controversy.
Washington’s Metropolitan Police Department is currently being re-assessed by the city council after an investigation by campaign group Human Rights Watch (HRW) and a review by an independent law firm found that police work on sexual assault cases was “inadequate” and recommended independent oversight, re-training and providing advocates for victims by right, to prevent cases being shelved and victims maltreated.
Cleveland police are repeatedly under scrutiny: currently over the case of three women held by a local man for years as sex slaves; in 2011 for a backlog of 1,000-plus untested rape kits and in 2009 for failing to catch serial rapist and killer Anthony Sowell before he murdered 11 women, despite other victims escaping and calling the police.
The New Orleans police department was censured by the Department of Justice in 2011 for poor policing of crime, including an unprecedented finding of systemic gender bias in its failures to investigate sexual assaults.
The police in Missoula, Montana, agreed last month to reform after a federal investigation into inappropriate responses to sex crimes.