More than half the time New Orleans police receive reports of rape or other sexual assaults against women, officers classify the matter as a noncriminal "complaint."This classification issue does more than make New Orleans seem like it has fewer rapes (the hospital did 168 rape exams in 2008), it improperly shifts responsibility for this non-criminal classification onto rape victims.
Police, who have been touting a decline in rapes, say the share of noncriminal complaints reflects the difficulty officers face in coaxing rape victims to push forward with their complaints.
But former Orleans Parish sex crime prosecutor Cate Bartholomew says the frequent use of the alternative category -- referred to as a "Signal 21" in NOPD parlance -- is a problem, arguing that some of the cases she saw should have been categorized as sex crimes.
Bartholomew and some other experts say the alternative labeling of alleged sexual assault raises questions about the accuracy of the department's recent rape statistics, showing a sharp decrease from 2007 to 2008 in the number of rapes and attempted rapes reported to the FBI: 114 rapes in 2007, down to 72 rapes last year.
Too often those who try to report rape are driven away by the very people who claim to be on the side of victims and justice. The way sexual assault victims are treated by the individual or the larger systems sends important messages which can contradict the official messages from law enforcement to sexual assault victims given through the media.
The messages which drive victims away could be open hostility, obvious dismissal of the crime, insufficient addressing of victims' safety concerns or it could be systemic issues such as understaffing which make working with law enforcement seem pointless. Unfortunately, it is easier to blame sexual assault victims for not doing their part than it is to deal with the core systemic problems.
The article says that one possible explanation given for the drop in NOPD rape stats is that there were fewer verifiable sexual assaults. The problem with this explanation is with the concept of verifiable. If this verification process is flawed then the resulting numbers will be just as flawed.
Archambault said departments need a noncriminal category for some situations, such as a call about a suspicious activity that turns out not to be a crime. But too often detectives will put cases into these alternative categories -- or declare a rape case to be "unfounded," meaning that it didn't occur -- when they can't substantiate a claim of a sexual assault.This inflated rate of unfounded cases is why when people use the rate of unfounded rape cases as evidence about the rate of fraudulent rape cases that their comparison is meaningless. Yet too many people either don't know or don't care that the comparison is meaningless and will use the information in this story to claim that over half of the reported sexual assaults against women never happened.
That may happen, she said, if they can't track down a victim who reported the crime or the victim doesn't continue cooperating after making an initial report. While those circumstances frustrate detectives, they don't justify declaring cases invalid, she said.
Correcting the classification of cases should do more than adjust statistics it should cause cases to be reviewed in a way that can lead to closed cases being reopened and fully investigated.
The fact that the number of rape forensic exams is higher than the official number of rapes raises the issue of whether the number of sexual assault forensic exams should be a data point reported to the FBI.