The FBI is moving to change the federal definition of rape for the first time in 80 years, which authorities and women's advocacy groups hope will lead to improved tracking of the crime and an attitude shift among investigators.
Critics have maintained that the current definition is archaic, too narrow and leaves crimes uncounted in police statistics, resulting in fewer resources for victims and law enforcement. Women's advocates accelerated their push for an updated definition last year with a hearing on Capitol Hill, spurred in part by reporting by The Baltimore Sun showing how city police had misclassified rapes and sexual assaults for years.
A subcommittee of the Criminal Justice Information Service of the FBI plans to take up the task at an Oct. 18 meeting in Baltimore. Its recommendations will go to an advisory board and then to FBI Director Robert Mueller for approval.
Greg Scarbro, the FBI's unit chief for the Uniform Crime Report, said the agency has been discussing revisions since last year.
"From the highest levels of the FBI, there's an understanding that this needs to change. We just need to make sure it happens in the right way," he said.
Since 1927, rape has been defined as forcible male penile penetration of a female — which excludes cases involving oral and anal penetration, where the victims were drugged or under the influence of alcohol, and male victims.
"In order for the public to combat violence in our communities, we need to know where it exists and what it looks like," said Carol Tracy, director of the Women's Law Project, which helped spur reform in Philadelphia a decade ago and has taken a leading role in the push to update the FBI's definition.
The New York Times first reported Thursday the potential for change after police chiefs, sex-crimes investigators, federal officials and advocates convened in Washington to discuss the limitations of the federal definition and the wider issue of local police departments not adequately investigating rapes.
Among those who spoke at that meeting was Baltimore Police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III, who told The Sun that he supports a change.
"Revising the definition of rape would result in a higher and more accurate number of rapes that are reported nationwide each year," Bealefeld said. "As we in Baltimore know all too well, the accurate and complete reporting of sexual assault is critically important in order to build victim confidence and trust, as well as to understand the nature of the problem nationwide."
According to statistics released by the FBI this month, there were 84,767 sexual assaults across the country last year, a drop of 5 percent from the previous year. Sexual assaults have long been one of the most underreported types of crime, with an estimated 80 percent of assaults not referred to police, experts say.
"We know that data drives the allocation of resources," Tracy said. "The undercounting of serious sex crimes that has been taking place for the last 80 years probably means that the resources that law enforcement should have to fight sex crimes is not adequate."
Scarbro said any change would be an unfunded directive, and the FBI wants to make sure state, local and tribal police agencies understand the changes and support them. He said the subcommittee meetings occur in different cities and that there was no specific reason why the next one will be held in Baltimore.
"We're hoping that at our Oct. 18 meeting we come out with a sound definition … and do so in a fashion that lessens the impact on resources at the federal, state, local and tribal level," Scarbro said. "I think we're going to be successful at that — it's just going to take some work."
Officials say they expect sexual assault numbers to jump across the country if changes are adopted.
In Baltimore, reported rapes increased nearly 70 percent last year after police overhauled the way the department investigated sex crimes following a Sun report that revealed that detectives here had been marking cases "unfounded" — meaning the incident did not occur — at a rate five times the national average.
Records and interviews with victims revealed that, in many cases, detectives pressured victims to recant.
Data showed that the city's reported rapes had tumbled nearly 80 percent since 1995, while nationally such cases had fallen just 7 percent during the same time. Amid the city's reported decline, the number of "unfounded" cases rose to more than 35 percent in 2006. No other city in the country consistently reported 30 percent of its cases as unfounded.
Bealefeld has said that the problems developed over time and were rooted in officers' lack of understanding of the complexities of sex-crimes investigations. The department has since turned over the unit, and has sent new detectives to training.
Local women's groups, who were brought in to help reform investigations, say city leaders have shown a genuine commitment to fixing the situation, but said this summer that complaints continue to come in about "victim blaming" and poor treatment of victims by some detectives.
Similar problems have been reported across the country in recent years, including in Philadelphia, St. Louis and New Orleans. In 1999, police in Philadelphia reopened 2,500 cases going back five years, the statute of limitations in Pennsylvania; of those, police auditors determined 2,300 were incorrectly handled.
While no cities reported an "unfounded" rate as high as Baltimore, some reported no unfounded cases at all, which experts say should also raise concerns.
"We need a paradigm shift away from focusing on victims and what they've done wrong, and [instead] looking at the serial nature of offenders," Tracy said.