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Monday, October 18, 1999

Crimes Uncounted
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,

Related material:

* 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 really rapes."

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 cases.

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 offenses."

"Second, difficult cases are weeded out," leaving "the more 'catchable' cases." That permitted the unit to boast of a high success rate at solving cases.

"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."

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