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Philadelphia Inquirer
December 7, 1999

Timoney: Some sex cases dumped

He told a Council panel that the practice had gone on for "years and years." He also voiced support for a new unit to aid young victims of sexual assaults.

Police Commissioner John F. Timoney (left) talks with Councilman Michael Nutter before testifying. (Eric Mencher / Inquirer Staff Photographer)
By Mark Fazlollah,
Michael Matza
and Craig R. McCoy
Police Commissioner John F. Timoney acknowledged yesterday that the police rape squad had "improperly" and "for years and years" kept some sexual-assault cases out of the city's crime statistics, a practice that cut short investigation.

During a City Council hearing at which rape counselors painted a harrowing picture of police treatment of victims, Timoney responded in detail for the first time to disclosures that the Special Victims Unit had buried thousands of cases since the early 1980s.

Timoney, accompanied to the Council chamber by a retinue of commanders, aides and lawyers, was asked to explain why about 30 percent of the sex-crimes unit's caseload was shunted into a bureaucratic limbo called "investigation of person" from 1984 to late 1997.

"It was used, probably improperly, for years and years as almost a catch basin for those [cases] you couldn't make a decision on," Timoney told members of Council's Public Safety Committee. He was referring to cases in which the facts were hard to sort out.

"The problem is" that some of the cases shelved by investigators were rapes "that required investigation," he said.

If supervisors had kept track of those cases, Timoney said, the improper classification would have been of little consequence. But such oversight "didn't happen," the commissioner said, "and as a result, there was slippage."

Timoney offered no estimate of how many cases were buried over the years, or how many could have led to arrests and prosecution had they been handled properly.

Questioned on this point by at-large Councilman Angel L. Ortiz, chairman of the committee, Timoney referred to an internal review he ordered in October, shortly after The Inquirer published articles detailing the widespread dumping of sexual-assault cases.

The department is reexamining about 5,000 cases put in noncriminal categories such as "investigation of person" or deemed "unfounded" - groundless - over the last five years. He said the review would be completed in about a week and told Ortiz: "We will get the number to you."

Timoney, who became police commissioner in March 1998 and took forceful steps to make the city's crime statistics more accurate, predicted the review would show that in many of the buried cases, the allegations were too insubstantial to amount to crimes.

Before an audience of rape counselors and victims' advocates, Timoney also endorsed a proposed overhaul in how the sex-crimes unit handles crimes involving children. Victims under 18 make up two-thirds of the unit's caseload.

Timoney expressed support for the creation of a unit, jointly staffed by detectives and social workers, that would investigate sex crimes and physical abuse against children and teenagers.

Under the current system, the police and child-welfare authorities usually pursue separate investigations. Young victims often must tell their stories over and over to different investigators, which can traumatize the children and cause their accounts to become distorted.

Timoney also released new figures showing that so far this year, police have rejected rape complaints as "unfounded" at a much lower rate than they did in 1998.

Last year, the sex-crimes unit rejected as "unfounded" 18 percent of all the rape complaints it received. During the first 11 months of 1999, 8 percent of complaints were rejected.

Timoney said he had taken steps to prevent legitimate complaints from being "unfounded." He told Council members that a sex-crimes investigator now needed approval from two supervisors to classify a complaint as groundless.

In an interview after the Council hearing, he said some of the 1998 "unfounded" cases were rapes and should have been classified as such. He said they had been misclassified because of "stupid errors."

The five-hour hearing was prompted by Inquirer articles documenting that the sex-crimes unit buried thousands of complaints. Cases deposited in "investigation of person" typically got no investigation, the newspaper found. The victims usually had no idea their cases had been shelved.

The practice permitted the unit to report one of the nation's highest arrest rates for rape - a rate that a Villanova University law professor yesterday termed "impressive, although entirely fabricated."

Before and after Timoney's appearance, the Council panel heard from an array of women's advocates, criminologists, law professors, rape prosecutors and others - many of whom had stinging remarks about how the city has been treating sexual-assault victims.

Carol Tracy, executive director of the Women's Law Project, said the sex-crimes unit had often viewed victims with suspicion, focusing on their past intimacy with their attackers or on personal problems with drugs or alcohol.

"These are the primary types of cases where the Philadelphia Police Department has let women down," Tracy said.

Among the sharpest criticism came from Michelle J. Anderson, who teaches criminal law at Villanova University.

"To hide rape complaints in administrative dead zones, as the Philadelphia Police Department has done, represents extraordinary cowardice and manipulation," Anderson said.

"Who knows how many of the 2,000 women in 1996 and 1997, for instance, whose rapes were ignored as 'investigation of person' would have called City Council, lobbied for reform or otherwise attempted to correct the situation - had they actually been told that the [police] did not believe their complaints were true?" she asked.

While Timoney acknowledged that thousands of cases had been put into noncriminal categories - 4,936 complaints in the last five years, according to figures he released yesterday - he disputed that the practice masked serious crimes in all cases.

In many cases, the commissioner said, the "investigation of person" classification - Code 2701, in the police handbook - was used for cases that amounted to suspicions rather than crimes.

"The bottom line is, while there are thousands of incidents going into 2701, there are not thousands of rapes," Timoney said.

Timoney said the internal review would separate serious crimes that were improperly "downgraded" from cases that were mere allegations or less.

"Some of them - I've read them - there's nothing there. There is no crime," Timoney told reporters after the hearing. "Others, there is a crime, and they'll be investigated accordingly.

"Others clearly will require more investigation to determine are they a crime or are not. Some of them may become rapes."

Also yesterday, Timoney took issue with a chart The Inquirer published Oct. 17 showing that Philadelphia's rate of "unfounding" rape complaints in 1998 was the highest of the nation's 10 largest cities.

Timoney said two of the cities listed - Dallas and San Antonio - had higher rates than Philadelphia. A recomputation yesterday by The Inquirer found that Dallas and San Antonio had slightly higher "unfounded" rates than were shown on the chart. Philadelphia's rate was still the highest.

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