Number of Rape Victims Reported Don't Reflect Reality

By Tara Murtha
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 1 | Posted Jun. 22, 2011

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How many women, men and children are sexually assaulted every year in Philadelphia, or Pennsylvania, or the U.S.? It depends who you ask—as long as you don’t follow the official statistics, called Uniform Crime Reports (UCR).

“The UCR Program is a voluntary ... law-enforcement program that provides a nationwide view of crime based on the submission of statistics by law enforcement agencies throughout the country,” according to the UCR Handbook. The FBI estimates the statistics represent almost 95 percent of the population. Stats indicate arrests, not successful prosecutions.

“[The UCR statistics] provide law enforcement with data for use in budget formulation, planning, resource allocation, assessment of police operations, etc.” Established in the 1920s, the first data was collected in 1930. Eighty-one years later, a solid snapshot of crime patterns across the country should be available at a glance, and it is—except when it comes to sexual assault.

The UCR’s definition of rape hasn’t been updated since 1929: “Carnal knowledge of a female forcibly and against her will.” “Carnal knowledge” is defined as “the act of a man having sexual bodily connections with a woman; sexual intercourse.”

In this definition, the only rapes that “count” are male-to-female rape that includes demonstrative physical force and penetration of the vagina by a penis.

Victims who don’t count in this definition include: Children, even though 44 percent of all rape victims are under 18; men, even though they represent one in 10 rape victims; victims who, like Lara Logan, were assaulted orally, anally or with hands, fingers and/or objects; and victims of female-on-female sexual assault.

An FBI staffer admitted the definition is “very narrow” but reasoned that eventually, a National Incident-Based Reporting System (NIBRS) with a more accurate definition of rape will be the preferred tracking system over the UCR. However, only 28 percent of the country uses NIBRS so far and there is not a foreseeable date for a complete switch. Philadelphia does not use this system.

The “hierarchy rule” is another way rapes are downgraded in national statistics. The rule dictates that except in cases of robbery and arson, only the most severe crime against an individual counts. The worst crime is, of course, murder.

That means for example, Sabina Rose O’Donnell, the popular PYT hostess who was raped and strangled to death last summer near Girard Avenue, doesn’t count. Neither does Elaine Goldberg, Nicole Piacentini and Casey Mahoney, all raped and murdered by the Kensington Strangler.

Keeping these restrictions in mind, the FBI stats—the ones that determine resource allocation—show that 896 “forcible rapes” took place in Philadelphia in 2009 and 945 in 2010. Though everyone agrees these numbers are low, there is no one reliable source for “real” numbers—and that’s the problem.

“[This is] the only reporting system where you get local information so for us to know what serious sex crime data is … we need something that does more than provide data based on the narrow definition in the UCR,” says Terry Fromson, managing attorney at the Women’s Law Project. “Service agencies that provide assistance to victims of sexual assault, they need to fund raise, they need to talk about what the scope of crime is out there and this data is not properly reflecting it,” says Fromson.

There are intangible consequences to UCR’s flaws, too.

“It’s our perspective that this whole thing shapes how [police] officers perceive what a serious sex crime is,” says Fromson.

Women’s Law Project has been advocating for a new UCR definition for years and has worked with the Philadelphia Police Department to develop a new classification system after a 1999 investigative report by the Inquirer revealed the PPD had misclassified—and effectively shelved—thousands of sexual assaults as noncriminal offenses from the mid-1980s through 1998.

In a hearing held last September before the Senate Committee on the Judiciary Subcommitee on Crime and Drugs, Women’s Law Project Executive Director Carol Tracy testified that the problem of under-reporting rape is far from over. Since assisting the post-scandal PPD, Tracy has heard similar stories out of St. Louis, New Orleans, Baltimore, Cleveland, Milwaukee and New York.

“There is no question that sexual stereotypes and bias are a root cause of police mishandling of sex crimes,” testified Tracy. “Less visible but no less responsible is the manner in which the FBI’s UCR system defines, analyzes and publicizes the incidence of sex crimes.”

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1. Cooke said... on Jun 22, 2011 at 09:32AM

“what a tragedy not to be able to really identify rape is so that the correct prevention and counseling can occur. I think education is a good place to start for younger people. but let's not pretend rape is not going on or is less of an issue than it really is.”

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