Baltimore police have been underreporting the number of rapes across the city this year, but officials described the problem as a data error and stressed that it did not affect the number of cases being investigated by sex offense detectives.
The mistake resulted in 16 rape cases being miscategorized in the agency's records management system, which reduced the number reported through the Comstat program. The program produces publicly available data that commanders use to track crime trends. Police said they had flagged the problem and were working to correct it.
"I'm extremely confident in the process we have to serve victims of sexual assault and rape," said Capt. Martin Bartness, the commander overseeing the sex offense unit. "We are doing right by our victims."
The incorrect data showed 45 rapes reported this year through April 13, compared with 81 at the same time last year — a decline of 44 percent, the largest drop of any category of crime.
Heather Brantner, the coordinator of the city's Sexual Assault Response Team, said the problem appeared largely superficial. Her group includes victim advocates and was formed in 2010 after The Baltimore Sun reported that police were discarding rape reports at the highest rate in the nation.
Members of the team began to notice the drop in recent weeks and had been discussing possible reasons for the decline.
Brantner said police took a closer look at the data, and determined that the unit's database of rape investigations showed a higher number. The number of rapes being investigated by the unit instead showed a decline of 25 percent over the same time last year, police said.
That's still a notable decline, and Bartness said members of the sexual assault response team are tracking the issue. The sex offense unit's statistics are scrutinized regularly, and Brantner has access to the internal police databases to look over the shoulder of detectives.
She said the group also discusses the data with advocacy groups, medical providers and counseling centers to make sure they match the experience on the ground.
"We're really dialed in," Bartness said. "At the end of the day, I'm extremely confident in the process we have to serve victims of sexual assault and rape."
Deputy Commissioner John P. Skinner said the agency reviewed other categories of crime and have not seen the same problem. He stressed that the records management data are constantly reviewed and not official until they are reported to the FBI, which collects the data nationally.
When an officer in the field writes a police report, it is hand-delivered to the agency's records management section. Skinner said the reports are reviewed by a specialist to make sure the category of crime matches what's described in the report. The report is then scanned in and entered into a computer system, he said.
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Detectives separately enter cases into a database that allows them to enter summaries and progress notes. That database is where the sex offense unit said it keeps its official accounting of cases.
Police Commissioner Anthony W. Batts has said he wants to upgrade both systems.
Skinner said the undercounting in the records management system appeared to be the result of clerical errors — for example, he said, a crime that was supposed to be classified as a "3J" being entered as a "3G" — and was not "downgrading" of the incidents, because sex offense detectives were still investigating them as serious crimes.
Skinner said the sex offense unit will submit its statistics directly to the Comstat program until the problem is resolved. He said police take the same approach with "shootings," a category that appears on Comstat reports but is not one that the agency has to report to the FBI. Shootings are broadly counted among aggravated assaults, but police count them separately on internal records so they know where they stand.
In 2010, The Sun reported that sex offense detectives were consistently discarding a high percentage of reports as "unfounded," meaning no crime occurred. Officials acknowledged a widespread problem, and made a number of reforms, including the formation of the sexual assault response team and launching a public awareness campaign.
While 31 percent of cases were deemed "unfounded" in 2009, just 1.7 percent were classified that way last year, Brantner said.