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

“I can count on one hand how often we’ve made such an arrest, and victims are not threatened with arrest,” said Darby, who has led the SVU for 11 years.

That does not mean that falsely accused suspects are being rounded up in droves either, he said.

When a woman, or more commonly a teenager, is lying about being raped, this will invariably emerge during a skilled interview without intimidation, Darby said.

Meanwhile his main focus is on improving services for the other 94 percent.

He is currently preparing to move the SVU into a new state-of-the-art complex, where forensic medical exam rooms, sex crime investigators, child abuse investigators, a representative from the district attorney’s office and other related services are all under one roof.

In the 1980s and 1990s, the sex crimes unit was first based in an unheated former horse stable, which smelt of manure in summer, and after that a disused military armory with barbed wire around dilapidated buildings. Victims waiting to be interviewed, who had already waited in the general hospital ER to have their intimate forensic exam, surrounded by shooting or car crash victims, would often see their alleged attackers sitting in the police station corridor in handcuffs.

The current forensic medical center dedicated to victims of sexual assault is run by retired senior Philadelphia sex crimes officer, former Lieutenant Michael Boyle, who, despite being one of the better detectives in the 1990s, did not see the scandal coming.

“People had become complacent. Officers were being careless and in many cases lazy and weren’t looking at cases as individual women, but just as a filing code or an overwhelming workload,” Boyle said.

Many detectives were burnt out, there was poor training, poor supervision, almost no oversight, insufficient funding and little respect from the rest of the department, which fostered an entrenched culture of bad behavior.

“I don’t believe in many cases it was willful. We were working in a battlefield, in this neighborhood particularly, with a constant wave of people’s personal misery coming at you,” Boyle said, indicating the deprived area outside his window, where drug dealing and prostitution are rife.

Some inherently sexist, but sometimes mainly exhausted police developed a “lady, let’s get this over with” attitude, Boyle said, which he now describes as “inexcusable and indefensible,” but was routine before the scandal broke — and still is in many departments up and down the country.

Boyle is now a respected authority on dealing with rape victims and gathering evidence and addresses conferences and workshops, briefing judges and prosecutors.

Captain Darby said that a culture existed that allowed officers, whether male or female, who had a predilection towards bias against rape victims to manifest that in their investigations.

“It starts to become a cancer in the squad,” he said.

Dismissing a rape victim because she is a sex worker or an addict does not help pinpoint serial rapists or help a woman emerge from a situation where “she’s down on her luck temporarily,” Darby said.

Despite the reforms, Darby said, there still had to be constant vigilance, from the chief down, to prevent lapsing into old ways or lack of further progress.

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