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Philadelphia Inquirer
Sunday, January 16, 2000

Police reopen thousands of dumped cases

Forty-five detectives are reinvestigating more than 2,000 sex offenses that were improperly downgraded since '95.

Police Commissioner John F. Timoney.
By Craig R. McCoy,
Michael Matza,
and Mark Fazlollah

The Philadelphia Police Department has launched a massive effort to reinvestigate more than 2,000 reported rapes, indecent assaults and other sex offenses dating to 1995 - cases that had been shelved by the police sex-crimes unit, often after little or no investigation.

In one of the largest investigative efforts in the department's history, 45 detectives have been dispatched to the Special Victims Unit to pore over old case files, seek out victims, and home in on suspects. The reexamination of buried cases has led to at least one arrest in the last two weeks. More are expected.

The cases being reopened date back five years, the bulk from 1995 through 1997. They were flagged for reinvestigation by departmental auditors who began reviewing sex-crimes files in October.

The auditors identified at least 1,800 cases from 1995, 1996 and 1997 that were closed without adequate investigation and improperly given administrative designations, such as "investigation of person," that do not appear in the city's crime statistics. A smaller number of cases from 1998 and 1999 are also getting a second look.

About 10 percent of the more than 2,000 cases marked for reinvestigation involve reports of rape.

The effort has sparked a buzz of activity at the Special Victims Unit headquarters in Frankford. Desks have been shoehorned into the building to accommodate the newly arrived detectives. Desktops have been piled high with old case files dug out of warehouses. Unmarked police cars have been commandeered from across the city.

Police Commissioner John F. Timoney said he ordered the reinvestigation because Inquirer articles last fall that detailed the wholesale dumping of sexual-assault complaints had created "an issue of public confidence."

Timoney said his aim was to determine with precision how many cases were mishandled by the rape squad in past years - and to try to solve as many of them as possible.

More broadly, he said, his goal is to send a message to victims that they can count on Philadelphia police to take sexual assaults seriously.

"You just can't weigh it in numbers and costs and overtime," Timoney said. "Whatever it takes to do it right and restore public confidence, you've got to do it."

The review is limited to the last five years because that is the statute of limitations for rape, the most serious sex offense. It does not address the thousands of other cases that sex-crimes investigators shelved in earlier years.

The reinvestigation effort began in December, but its magnitude became evident only in recent days. Timoney discussed it in detail for the first time in an interview Friday.

The 45 investigators are newly promoted detectives, although many are seasoned officers. They received their gold detective shields last month. In an unprecedented move, Timoney assigned the entire new crop of detectives to the sex-crimes unit. Ordinarily, new detectives are dispersed to units across the city.

The group arrived at the Special Victims Unit on Dec. 20 and began teasing leads out of the old files.

Their work paid off Jan. 6, when a pair of detectives arrested a North Philadelphia man who in 1996 allegedly sodomized a younger brother and cousin over an extended period. The suspect was 17 at the time.

The man, now 20, was charged with two counts of involuntary deviate sexual intercourse - a felony punishable by up to 20 years in prison upon conviction. Police did not identify him.

The case was originally classified as "investigation of person," a noncriminal designation.

The new detectives supplement about 60 officers and investigators permanently assigned to the sex-crimes unit. Timoney has appointed a new second-in-command of the unit - an "executive captain" - who is overseeing the review.

Commanders expect that completing the reinvestigations will take about six months. Thereafter, some of the new detectives will remain at the sex-crimes unit and others will go to other divisions around the city.

The detectives are now visiting neighborhoods across Philadelphia, looking for victims, witnesses and, in some cases, suspects.

In interviews, they said the work was hard. Many victims are long gone from their old addresses. Those who can be found are often loath to dredge up painful memories.

One detective said a victim told him: "That happened so long ago - and nothing's going to happen anyway."

Another woman, raped as a teenager in 1996, burst into tears as a detective asked her about the assault.

Some of the victims were disbelieved when they first told their story to the sex-crimes unit - and are reluctant to talk now.

One of the cases exhumed from "investigation of person" involved a woman who was robbed and raped four years ago. A detective who reinterviewed her recently said she had stopped cooperating with the sex-crimes unit in 1996 because she thought officers were twisting her words.

"She felt like she was being challenged, that it was being turned around," the detective said. "She felt she was being badgered. She pulled back."

The detective said he hoped to make arrests shortly in several of the cases he is handling. He said prosecutions would mean a lot to the victims, showing that no matter what happened before, their cases count.

"Lip service doesn't do anybody any good," he said.

Though the new arrivals are described as eager and energetic, officers said there was some tension because the detectives were reviewing the work of older veterans, some of whom are still in the sex-crimes unit.

"What they did before was totally wrong," another detective said.

Detectives involved in the review spoke on condition that they not be identified. Timoney has ordered them not to talk to reporters. They have been warned that commanders will dock the pay of anyone who flouts that order.

A series of Inquirer articles beginning in October documented how the sex-crimes unit buried thousands of cases over the last two decades. In its early years, the unit, established in 1981, rejected large numbers of cases as "unfounded" - indicating that the complainants had fabricated their accounts.

When that practice came under scrutiny from FBI auditors, the unit adopted a different tactic - shunting cases into "investigation of person." From 1984 to the end of 1997, the squad dumped nearly one-third of its caseload into that bureaucratic twilight zone.

Current and former members of the unit said they employed these tactics in response to a steep workload and pressure from commanders to produce favorable crime statistics.

Soon after the first Inquirer articles appeared, women's groups called for a complete accounting of the buried cases and Timoney promised a review.

The department's auditing arm, the Quality Assurance Bureau, began to examine records on "investigation of person" cases from 1995, 1996 and 1997 - years in which the code was heavily used.

Timoney said the auditors read the investigative file on each of these sexual-assault complaints, including reports detailing any steps taken to solve the cases.

In some of the cases, the conduct alleged by the complainant, such as making a pass at a woman, did not amount to a crime. In those instances, the "investigation of person" label was deemed appropriate.

In some other cases, the auditors found that a crime had been committed and was thoroughly investigated, but could not be solved. Those cases will be reclassified as crimes and added to the city's crime statistics for those years. But they will not be reinvestigated.

The bulk of the cases fell into a third category: They appear to involve criminal conduct and yet were deposited in "investigation of person" after inadequate or no investigation.

Timoney said the "vast majority" of the cases studied fit that description. The crimes involved include rapes, indecent assaults, indecent exposure and beatings.

Timoney said he could not yet quantify how many of the cases, on reinvestigation, would prove to be rapes. But he asserted that rapes likely would be far outnumbered by lesser crimes.

"There'll be rapes in there," Timoney said, but not "thousands of rapes."

Chief Inspector Vincent R. DeBlasis, head of the Quality Assurance Bureau, declined to comment on his staff's review.

While DeBlasis' auditors studied cases from 1995 through 1997, Chief of Detectives John T. Maxwell conducted a similar review of a much smaller pool of sexual-assault cases from 1998 and 1999 that were deemed "unfounded" or were put in another noncriminal category called "investigation, protection, medical examination."

The unit's use of noncriminal codes dropped sharply in 1998, as pressure mounted for more-accurate crime statistics.

Timoney, who became commissioner that year and pushed hard for reliable crime data, said the review of the more recent cases had turned up far fewer that required further investigation.

In many of the "investigation of person" cases from 1995-97, the investigative file gives no indication of any action to solve the case or find a suspect. Many of the files indicate that an "additional supplemental report" detailing such actions would follow, but the files contain no such reports.

One sex-crimes officer said of the sweeping reinvestigation effort:

"It's a good idea. People who didn't get some service may get service. It may get some [suspects] off the street. And because of the workload here, anything could have fallen through the cracks. Anything."

Inquirer staff writer Clea Benson contributed to this article.

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