Monday, October 18, 1999
How Philadelphia police his rape complaints
Sidebar to the second of two parts
Police used 'throwaway categories' since 1960s
By Michael Matza and Craig R. McCoy,
INQUIRER STAFF WRITERS
Part 1: Women victimized twice in police game of numbers
Part 2: How police use a new code when sex cases are 'unclear'
After FBI questioned one tactic, another was found
Rape squad office? 'It's sort of scary'
Philadelphia police have been downgrading sexual-assault cases for at
least three decades.
In the late 1960s, a University of Pennsylvania law student documented how
police made numerous rape complaints disappear into bureaucratic black holes.
The student's 1968 article in the Penn Law Review said police tended to
view only one kind of rape complaint as legitimate - an attack by a stranger
in which the victim fought back so strenuously that she was injured.
A decade later, a group of Penn social scientists published a study of rape
in Philadelphia that found that more than one in 10 complaints were put in "
'throwaway' categories . . . converted into administrative matters that will
not appear in the crime statistics."
Neither study got much notice - nor prompted change in the department.
The law student, Carl K. King, then 23, did his study in 1966 under the
guidance of Henry S. Ruth Jr., then a Penn law professor, later a Watergate
prosecutor. With Ruth opening doors, King pored over police case files and
interviewed officers throughout the force.
They told him, he wrote, that up to 90 percent of reported rapes "are not
King's 1968 article said officers rejected some rape complaints without
even writing up incident reports. In other cases, officers accepted the
complaints but quickly "unfounded" them - rejecting them as groundless -
without referring the cases to detectives for investigation.
When detectives "are very skeptical of the complainant's allegations," King
wrote, "they tend to classify the incident and the investigation as an
'investigation of person.' "
That's the label police used in the '80s and '90s to bury thousands of rape
Near the end of his article, King said: "The use of the 'investigation of
person' classification, which 'hides' rape complaints, must be discontinued."
King, now 56 and a lawyer in Boston, said in an interview that he found
Philadelphia police deeply skeptical of women who they thought hadn't put up
enough of a fight.
"If she really didn't want it to happen, it wouldn't have happened," he
said, summing up police attitudes at that time. "If there aren't any cuts and
bruises and broken bones, she obviously didn't resist."
A team of researchers took a second look at the issue in the mid-1970s -
and reached similar conclusions.
Under the guidance of a famed Penn criminologist, the late Marvin E.
Wolfgang, three academics analyzed 1,401 rape cases handled by Philadelphia
General Hospital, then the city's designated treatment center for
sexual-assault victims. The researchers found that "a portion of
sexual-assault complaints disappear" from police records and "may, in fact, be
lost on purpose."
In their 1979 book, The Aftermath of Rape, the authors explained the
motives for such conduct:
"The complaint rate for rape is lowered" as cases "vanish from the final
tally of rape complaints," they wrote. "Nor is there any pressure on the
police to clear [solve] these cases, since they are not labeled as chargeable
"Second, difficult cases are weeded out," leaving "the more 'catchable'
cases." That permitted the unit to boast of a high success rate at solving
"Finally, the police need not report these [buried] cases as unfounded,
enabling the department to establish a record of believing more complainants
than is actually the case."
One of the study's authors, Linda Williams, now a criminology professor at
Wellesley College and codirector of the National Violence Against Women
Prevention Research Center, said that much had changed since the '70s - but
that some attitudes seemed intractable.
For rape victims, she said, "There's still this stigma and feeling of shame
and embarrassment and the sense that you're not going to be believed."