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Philadelphia Inquirer
Friday, October 22, 1999

In Council, questions on rape cases

Some members want to know why many assaults were not investigated. Public hearings are likely.

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* Living with fear in Rittenhouse Square: A series of sexual attacks has women taking precautions - and eyeing men with suspicion.

By Mark Fazlollah, Michael Matza, Craig R. McCoy and Clea Benson

The shelving of thousands of sexual-assault complaints by the Police Department's rape squad likely will be the subject of public hearings in City Council.

Councilman Angel L. Ortiz, chairman of the Public Safety Committee, said yesterday he would propose that hearings be held before the end of the year to determine why reports of rape and other sex crimes were dumped in a bureaucratic limbo.

Six other Council members said that they would support Ortiz's proposal, and that since he leads the committee with jurisdiction over the Police Department, it was likely to win Council approval.

"I think it's something that needs to be clarified," said Ortiz, a Democrat who holds one of seven at-large seats. "We need to know what all the answers are, what the problems have been, and how we're going to correct them. It's too important to just be left out there."

Council President Anna C. Verna, the final authority on scheduling hearings, said she had no objection to Ortiz's proposal.

Ortiz acted in response to appeals from the Women's Law Project. The law project and two other groups - Women Organized Against Rape and the state chapter of the National Organization for Women (NOW) - had urged a review of the rape squad's activities after The Inquirer reported that the unit put about 30 percent of its caseload in a statistical limbo between 1984 and late 1997.

The complaints were placed in Code 2701, "investigation of person," so they would not appear in the city's crime statistics.

Cases buried in that fashion typically received little or no investigation, The Inquirer reported. Many victims said investigators from the Special Victims Unit never contacted them after an initial hospital interview. Others said sex-crime officers seemed determined to poke holes in their accounts.

The statistical sleight-of-hand was never revealed to the public or to sexual-assault victims.

Among cases dumped in "investigation of person" were the first two confirmed attacks by the man who has sexually assaulted five women and murdered a sixth in the Rittenhouse Square area.

Earlier this month, the department acknowledged that the first two cases were positively linked to the rapist by DNA testing conducted recently - in one instance, after Inquirer reporters asked questions about the case.

"We've been hoodwinked for 18 years," since the Special Victims Unit was founded in 1981, said Carol E. Tracy, executive director of the Women's Law Project.

She said Police Department officials, FBI representatives, criminologists and sex-crimes investigators from other cities should be called to testify at Council hearings. She said sexual-assault victims should also be heard from.

"We need lots of sunshine," Tracy said in an interview. "The only way to do it is to do it publicly."

On Monday, Tracy wrote Ortiz that "all women in Philadelphia are entitled to an explanation about past and current practices regarding the reporting and investigation of sex crimes."

"It is well-known that rape is one of the most underreported crimes, so it is imperative to have a system that women can trust," she said.

Barbara Burgos DiTullio, president of NOW's Pennsylvania chapter, said: "I'm very pleased that this is going to happen." She said the issue was: "Who's watching the police?"

The six Council members who said they would support Ortiz in holding hearings were Jannie Blackwell, David Cohen, James F. Kenney, Richard T. Mariano, Donna Reed Miller and Frank Rizzo.

Council members Frank DiCicco and Brian J. O'Neill said they were opposed, on the ground that Council should not second-guess Police Commissioner John F. Timoney.

Council member Darrell Clarke said he was undecided.

Verna offered no opinion on the merits of Ortiz's proposal. She said she saw no basis to oppose the idea, "if he introduces it and we have time."

The remaining five Council members could not be reached.

Blackwell applauded the call for hearings. "I think we ought to air this out," she said. "It's always better when the public hears the truth."

Blackwell said she was surprised to learn that, as The Inquirer reported, the Police Department in 1998 rejected as "unfounded" - or groundless - 18 percent of the 915 rape complaints it received. That was the highest unfounded rate among the nation's 10 largest cities.

"That's pretty remarkable - to hear that we lie more than in other parts of the country," she said.

Cohen, a member of the Public Safety Committee, predicted that Ortiz's proposal would be "overwhelmingly approved."

"I think it highlights a very important issue that has never really been dealt with adequately, and I think it's time to shine a light on it," Cohen said.

Rizzo said that even before there are hearings, Timoney should "quickly respond to the concerns by the Women's Law Project."

"This is an issue we need to have corrected immediately. The Police Department needs to focus on this immediately. Move quickly to resolve it," said Rizzo, also a member of the Public Safety Committee.

"There are some instances [of sex crimes] that are not categorized properly and an appropriate investigation is not conducted. That is just not the way that business should be conducted," he said.

Rizzo, son of the former mayor and police commissioner, said if Timoney acted quickly to address the concerns of the women's group, hearings might not be necessary.

Timoney, who took over the department last year, has said that a reorganization of the rape squad that he ordered has greatly reduced manipulation of statistics.

He has also said, however, that he would not undertake a review of cases buried in past years to see if any could lead to arrests.

Yesterday, Timoney was out of town and unavailable for comment, a spokeswoman said.

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