Sun, Jul 07, 2013 - Page 9 News List

How one city’s rape crisis stands to help others

In the 1980s and 1990s, Philadelphia police were found to have regularly ignored rape cases. The resulting crisis brought shame to the city — but now the department’s transformation is a model for others

By Joanna Walters  /  The Guardian, NEW YORK

However, some cities police sex crimes markedly better than others. HRW praised Philadelphia, Austin, Grand Rapids and Kansas City in Missouri, for making the biggest strides in the past 10 to 12 years, with “a victim-centered approach as opposed to one that emphasizes quickly closing cases,” HRW stated in a report earlier this year.

New York and Baltimore are examples of cities where policing rape has made some recent progress, but still faces significant obstacles, according to various experts.

Many other cities hide bad practices behind a lack of oversight at local or federal level.

One of the unique innovations in Philadelphia that came out of the scandal is an external oversight committee that independently reviews police handling of rape cases.

The committee is made up of some of law enforcement’s sharpest critics: staff from the city’s rape crisis center, many of whose clients were let down by the police for years; experts in women’s legal rights; and children’s advocates.

Philadelphia-based Women’s Law Project executive director Carol Tracy is a leading member of the committee and was asked by the Philadelphia police in 1999 to help spearhead its creation.

“It brought transparency and independent scrutiny at a time when the public had lost confidence in the police. It is a model other departments should learn from,” she said.

The oversight committee examines rape reports classified as “unfounded,” meaning the police believe the incident does not meet the criteria for rape or sexual assault, or that it was fabricated.

In the late 1990s Philadelphia police would declare almost a fifth of cases to be “unfounded,” in addition to the hundreds it simply buried by misclassifying them under bogus codes.

Now, as well as long ago eliminating the intentional misclassifications, its “unfounded” rate for rape cases has dropped to about 9 percent or 10 percent, closer to the national average range of 6 percent to 9 percent, which most experts deem fair.

One former detective from the 1990s became notorious for nicknaming the Philadelphia sex crimes unit “the lying bitches unit” and publicly opining that women lie about rape “about half the time.”

The current head of the unit, now called the special victims unit (SVU), Captain John Darby, swiftly scotched that.

“How often does a sexual assault victim lie about it? Everyone wants to quantify that — the best thing to say is the rate is very low,” he said.

When pressed he estimated a mere 6 percent.

His detectives are trained to understand that even if sometimes a victim is not truthful about how many drinks he or she had or some other peripheral circumstance because they fear being harshly judged and blamed, it does not mean they are lying about being assaulted.

Darby said that his team are not out to prosecute victims for underage drinking or drug use, for example, because overlooking that helps elicit an honest and more full account of what happened, which in turn improves the chances of arresting a rape suspect, and increases a victim’s value as a potential witness.

As for arresting the victim themselves for the crime of false reporting, in the few cases where detectives deduce they were lying outright, Darby almost never resorts to that because it stops other victims coming forward in an area of crime where the Department of Justice estimates 60 percent of sexual assaults go unreported.

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