Sense of urgency on rape cases E-mail
Written by Mark Nichols   

If there's one area where law enforcement could probably use some improvement, it's rape cases. Notoriously difficult to close and frequently looked at with suspicion from the jump, rapes are some of the most challenging crimes investigators have to deal with. Making matters worse is the fact that the FBI does not classify many rapes as such. They don't count rapes where a gun was used, rapes where the victim was male and a host of other categories that most people would consider clear cut rape offenses.


According to the FBI, the definition of rape is, "the carnal knowledge of a female forcibly and against her will." The upshot from a crime statistics perspective is that this narrow definition is that many rapes are excluded from the FBI's annual crime statistics. Forced anal sex and/or oral sex do not qualify as rape under thew FBI's definition.

Neither does rape with an object. It also excludes statutory rape and omits rape by men against men and any rape by a woman. The outdated definition of rape also excludes incidents where the use of drugs or alcohol to subdue a victim, a common tactic used today.

Recently the U.S. Senate decided to hold hearings to further investigate the tremendous difficulty law enforcement has in investigating the crime of rape. During testimony recently before the Senate panel, a Pennsylvania woman, 19 at the time, told Senators that she was working the late shift at a gas station near Pittsburgh in 2004 when she was raped.

She survived the assault. But then she had to endure the skepticism of a local police detective after she called 911. Instead of believing her, the officer assumed she had robbed the station and fabricated the rape as a cover-up, she testified during a congressional hearing recently. Chaired by Sen. Arlen Specter (D., Pa.), the session was convened to explore what Specter, former Philadelphia Police Commissioner Charles H. Ramsey, (now with the Police Executive Research Forum) and others called "the chronic failure" of law enforcement to thoroughly investigate rapes.

Witnesses explained to the panel that Philadelphia police had severely underreported rapes for decades through the 1990s. In response to the problem, then-Police Commissioner John F. Timoney allowed an outside group to annually audit the performance of the Special Victims Unit, a practice that has continued under Ramsey.

Ramsey heads the Police Executive Research Forum, a law enforcement association dedicated to sharing best practices. He said that he will call "a summit" on sexual assault in the coming year and urge other departments to work with advocacy groups in their jurisdictions to adopt the type of auditing arrangement that Philadelphia police have with the Women's Law Project- the group that audited the special victims unit.

Witnesses told the Senators that it was well past time for the FBI, which oversees the reporting of crime through the Uniform Crime Report (UCR), to update the definition of rape. Back in 2001, women's advocacy groups wrote to the FBI asking for a review of the definition of rape, but the FBI never replied.

"I am sorry that the FBI has not responded to your letter," Specter said with his trademark drawl. "I will let you know when they respond to mine." The remark drew a chuckle from the small audience of about 100.

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