Peter Hermann: Downgrading rape cases historic problem

A competitor in a contested state's attorney's race called the Baltimore Police Department's rape unit a "gimmick."

Officials suggested a hotline in which victims of sexual assault could dial "RAPE" and speak to a detective 24 hours a day.

Outraged heads of women's groups testified at a three-hour City Council hearing that, according to The Baltimore Sun, "police and prosecutors treat rape victims in a degrading manner, that scores of rapes are never reported for fear of this treatment and because of embarrassment."

That was 1974.

Here we are in 2010 — many mayors, police commissioners, lawmakers and victims later — wondering whether city police detectives discouraged women from reporting sexual attacks in order to achieve a statistical drop in the city's number of rapes.

Baltimore police deem nearly one-third of rape reports "unfounded," meaning they believe they are false or baseless — more than in any other city in the country, according to a Baltimore Sun investigation. Now, a new round of expressed horror and concern will lead to a new round of investigations and promises of an overhaul.

Police in Baltimore are continually accused of fudging the numbers. Police leaders are only as good as their stats, and the pressure to get them lower, whether explicitly stated or implied, is intense.

And it's a time-honored practice, law enforcement experts say, in a culture that relies on evaluating job performance through statistics and in which police officers harbor an inherent distrust for victims and suspects alike.

Sheldon F. Greenberg, a former Howard County police officer who now heads a police executive training program at the Johns Hopkins University, said the over-reliance on numbers encourages manipulation.

"Too many police executives around the country are judged by good stats and the absence of problems," Greenberg said. "If you don't upset the apple cart and generate good stats, you're considered in high regard, regardless of whether the community is better."

Greenberg said that cops dismissing and downgrading crime has been going on — and will go on — as long as politicians need the low crime figures to win elections. Cops are so intent on bringing down the numbers that they have no time to do the work required to actually reduce crime, he said.

Barry M. Baker, a retired Baltimore police lieutenant with 32 years' experience, called most crime stats "pure fiction." Over the decades, he said, officers have told him stories of crimes they didn't write up.

Rape and sexual assault cases are the among the easiest to hide. A cop can underestimate the value of a stolen item in order to classify the crime as a misdemeanor instead of a felony theft. But if a cop can persuade a woman not to report a sexual assault in the first place, the entire case can disappear.

The problem is still going on today.

Three city officers are being investigated for failing to file a report from a rape victim, and a police commander lost his job last year in part because his officers wrote up an attack of a nanny in Bolton Hill as a "police information" — a general type of report that does not show up in the city's crime statistics — instead of an assault and robbery.

Stories abound of reports not taken, of crimes not investigated, of indifferent cops. People complained after top police commanders poured resources into the recent theft of two bicycles from a garage at the rowhouse owned by President George W. Bush's daughter, Jenna Bush Hager.

Said one commenter on the Baltimore Sun's online talk boards: "Intense search? For bikes? I was an eyewitness to a brutal mugging across the street from my house. When the victims called the police, the officer said, 'We probably won't catch these guys, it will just be a waste of time to fill out a report.'"

This newspaper's archives are full of stories of mishandled crime statistics.

In 1964, a Sun investigation discovered that half the city's criminal complaints had not been properly reported, a probe that forced the police commissioner to retire.

From 1972: A 20-year veteran city police lieutenant was suspended for 15 days for falsifying seven crime reports in order to classify the offenses as crimes less serious than they actually were. At first, the officer testified at his administrative hearing that he "goofed" and made innocent mistakes, but he then alleged that downgrading crime was widespread.

A 1994 series by then Sun reporter David Simon revealed that during one month, the Police Department robbed the sex offense unit of all but one investigator, leaving a single detective to handle 300 reported assaults.

"Women were being raped, and nothing was being done," Simon wrote.

In 2000, police had to reclassify 9,572 reports because they had been wrongly downgraded to lesser offenses, turning a much hyped 10 percent crime drop into a 3.5 percent increase.

It's easier to make crime go away on paper than in real life.