WASHINGTON—— In Cleveland, women's claims that a sex offender had assaulted them were ignored, until police found the bodies of 11 women at the man's home. In Milwaukee, a woman tried to report being raped but was told at three different police stations to go someplace else; her attacker went on to commit more rapes. And in New York, police apologized for downgrading a felony sexual assault in an upper Manhattan park.
Women's advocates, police, and academics appeared Tuesday before a U.S. Senate panel to call on Congress to exercise greater oversight over numbers reported by local police departments to the FBI, and to update antiquated definitions that lead many rapes to be classified as lesser offenses.
"[In Baltimore] The Baltimore Sun put a spotlight on this. As a result, there was action, attention was paid, and all of a sudden the number of cases has gone up dramatically," said Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin, a Maryland Democrat. "But I'm concerned that in other areas of this nation, they may not be hitting the radar screen."
Philadelphia Police Commissioner Charles H. Ramsey announced at the hearing that the Police Executive Research Foundation will convene an executive session in early 2011 for police leaders, medical and mental health professionals and advocacy groups to discuss the current state of sexual assault reporting and investigations. Ramsey said the goal is to advise police agencies on best practices and how to partner with their local social service and advocacy organizations.
Philadelphia police have since 1999 allowed members of the Women's Law Project to review hundreds of cases each year and scrutinize police investigations. Carol E. Tracy, the group's executive director, said that due to their work, she often hears from journalists across the country investigating inconsistencies in police reporting of rape.
"It's clear we're seeing chronic and systemic patterns of police refusing to accept cases for investigation, misclassifying cases to non-criminal categories so that investigations do not occur, and 'unfounding' complaints by determining that women are lying about being sexually assaulted," Tracy said. "The FBI uniform crime reporting program really needs to examine both its definition [of rape] and audit responsibilities" of police statistics.
She argues that the FBI collects the data from local police departments as part of its Uniform Crime Reporting program, the authoritative resource for crime statistics, but does not scrutinize whether those agencies have followed guidelines and submitted accurate information.
"It shouldn't be the responsibility of investigative reporters to look at this," she said.
Cardin and outgoing Sen. Arlen Specter, a Pennsylvania Democrat who called the hearing, both said they would push the FBI to adopt a more consistent definition of sexual assault to better determine the extent of rape nationwide and agreed that uniform guidelines for reporting were needed.
Since 1927, the FBI has defined rape as forcible male penile penetration of a female, which experts say is too narrow a definition because it excludes oral and anal penetration and homosexual rape. Tracy said that in 2001 she sent a letter, co-signed by 90 different organizations, that sought an update to the definition, but to date has not received a response.
Sexual assaults have long been one of the most underreported types of crime, with an estimated 80 percent of assaults not referred to police, according to testimony.
"No law enforcement agency, no criminal justice system can address the issue of those victims if they are reluctant to come forward," said Dean G. Kilpatrick, a psychologist and director of the National Crime Victims Research and Treatment Center in South Carolina.
But while Kilpatrick said surveys show that the proportion of adult women who report being raped has increased in the past two decades, police statistics show a nationwide decline.
There are wild disparities among cities in the number of rapes reported, as well as how police agencies determine what constitutes an "unfounded" report. While Baltimore was in a league of its own with more than 30 percent of reported cases classified as unfounded (only one other city, Dallas, recorded more than 20 percent in 2008), others reported none at all, which experts say is equally suspect.
Sara Reedy, of Cranberry, Pa., was among those who testified. She was raped in 2004 during a robbery at the gas station where she worked, but a detective did not believe her and eventually arrested her and charged her with the theft. Her attacker was later apprehended and confessed to raping her.
Sen. Al Franken, a Minnesota Democrat, said stories like Reedy's were "simply horrific." He shook his head when Reedy told him the detective is still on the force.
Ramsey said that police do encounter cases where victims are lying, but said "it's not a large percentage at all." Some studies suggest anywhere from 2 percent to 10 percent of reported cases are baseless, though others have placed the figure much higher.
Lawanda Ravoira, director of the NCCD Center for Girls and Young Women in Jacksonville, Fla., said there are "pervasive attitudes" in police departments that acquaintance rape or crimes that do not involve weapons are not as serious. Eighty percent of assaults involve a perpetrator and victim who know each other, Ravoira said.