Senate Subcommittee Hearing Will Investigate Institutional Impediments to Justice in Cases of Sexual Violence

by Shaker soupcann314, who works at the Women's Law Project's Pittsburgh office.

[Trigger warning for rape/sexual assault.]

Tomorrow afternoon, the U.S. Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime and Drugs will hold a public hearing on "Rape in the United States: The Chronic Failure to Report and Investigate Rape Cases." Senator Arlen Specter, chairman of the subcommittee, scheduled the hearing at the request of the Women's Law Project, which has been working on this issue since the Philadelphia Inquirer reported in October 1999 that the Philadelphia Police Department was labeling rape cases as non-violent offenses and dismissing reports as "groundless" after little or no investigation. The WLP spearheaded an advocacy effort that resulted in a reinvestigation of police files, finding 681 cases which should have been classified and investigated as rapes and 1700 other cases which should have been investigated as other sex crimes.

Recently, the WLP has been contacted by reporters in several other major American cities, including New York, Baltimore, New Orleans, St. Louis, Milwaukee and Cleveland, about police departments using similar tactics to sweep reports of rape under the rug. The stories from around the U.S. are heartbreaking:

  • In Cleveland, Anthony Sowell was accused of assaulting and raping numerous women in his home, but wasn't prosecuted until police finally investigated the property and found the bodies of 11 murdered women, most of whom were strangled to death. Two victims who escaped from Sowell were not considered credible by police and their cases were ignored, even though blatant evidence (including blood at the reported crime scene) linked Sowell to the crimes.

  • In Baltimore, a 32-year-old woman was raped at gunpoint. At the hospital, a police officer asked her questions clearly indicating that he didn't believe her account, including why she waited for two hours before calling the police and why she hadn't just flagged down a squad car. After this accusatory line of questioning following her rape, the woman retracted her statement and the crime was re-classified as "unfounded." The Baltimore Sun reported that more than 30% of cases investigated by the police are labeled "unfounded," five times the national average. And in 4 out of 10 emergency calls to the police involving reports of rape, officers conclude that "there is no need for a further review, so the case never makes it to detectives."

  • In Milwaukee, a woman tried to report being raped several times by Gregory Tyson Below over the course of hours, but was told at three different police stations to go someplace else. She says she was assaulted by Below two more times and finally moved to Georgia to get away from him. In a separate assault by Below, police disbelieved the woman, who they found bruised and naked from the waist down, because they discovered she had a previous drug charge.

    One of the victims testifying tomorrow is Sara Reedy, a Butler County, PA, woman who reported her assault to the police and ended up being arrested for false reporting. She spent five days in jail and awaited trial for months before her charges were dropped – when her assailant confessed to assaulting her and two subsequent women.

    In her testimony, Carol Tracy, executive director of the Women's Law Project, will ask Congress to direct the FBI to charge the Uniform Crime Program staff to undertake a nationwide audit of police practices to insure that local law enforcement agencies are recognizing and investigating sex crimes so that they are properly reported as crimes to the FBI.

    She'll also discuss the need to update the FBI's Uniform Crime Reporting system's definition of what constitutes rape. The definition that is still used today was adopted in 1927 and classifies "forcible rape" as "the carnal knowledge of a female, forcibly and against her will." This definition identifies only forced penile-vaginal penetration as rape and completely ignores the many other forms that rape can take.

    You should be able to watch the hearings live online here at 2:15 PM EDT on Tuesday, September 14. Let's hope that the federal spotlight on this issue will make every police department in the country review how they handle rape and sexual assault cases. In the meantime, advocates will continue to work for the day when every rape victim's account is taken seriously and investigated thoroughly by the systems that should be in place to help and protect them.

    You can view contact the members of the Senate Judiciary Committee here to thank them for holding the hearing and encourage them to approve a nationwide audit of police practices when it comes to reporting and investigating rape cases.

    Shakesville is run as a safe space. First-time commenters: Please read Shakesville's Commenting Policy and Feminism 101 Section before commenting. We also do lots of in-thread moderation, so we ask that everyone read the entirety of any thread before commenting, to ensure compliance with any in-thread moderation. Thank you.

    blog comments powered by Disqus