Specter to hold hearing on downgrading of rape cases

Posted: September 07, 2010

Alarmed at reports that police mishandled rape complaints in at least six cities, Sen. Arlen Specter has scheduled a public hearing next week to explore what he called "the chronic failure to report and investigate rape cases."

Specter (D., Pa.) is acting at the urging of the Women's Law Project, a Philadelphia-based advocacy organization that has pointed to recent news stories about police downgrading rape cases in New York, Baltimore, St. Louis, New Orleans, Milwaukee, and Cleveland.

Specter said Tuesday that police too often fail to investigate rape in a sensitive fashion, as shown by the worrisome trend documented in the news reports. His goal, he said, is "to focus some attention on the issue, to see if we can get a proper response."

In New York, according to articles in the New York Times and the Village Voice, police have been downgrading rapes from felonies to misdemeanors - or rejecting victims' accounts as untrue.

In Baltimore, the Sun reported that police had dramatically reduced their annual tally of rapes while tripling the figure for complaints deemed false. The newspaper said that Baltimore police led the nation in the rate at which they called rape allegations "unfounded," rejecting almost a third as false.

Despite years of feminist pressure over the issue of rape and the favorable portrayal of special-victims-unit officers on TV, advocates say that treatment of victims of sexual assault remains a major problem. Often, they say, women who report assaults can find themselves victimized a second time by police who label them liars or blame them for the attack.

The Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, to take place Sept. 14, will be one of the last Specter presides over before he leaves office in January.

Among those scheduled to testify are Philadelphia Police Commissioner Charles H. Ramsey; Eleanor Smeal, head of the Feminist Majority Foundation; and Susan B. Carbon, director of the U.S. Justice Department's Office of Violence Against Women.

The Women's Law Project has followed the issue of police downgrading of rape complaints nationwide for a decade, since it became an active participant in efforts to reform the system in Philadelphia.

The local changes were launched after The Inquirer reported in 2000 that Philadelphia police had secretly dumped thousands of complaints of sexual abuse with little or no investigation.

In response to the scandal, police reopened 1,822 buried crimes, including 681 rapes. The police commissioner at the time, John F. Timoney, agreed that outsiders, including the Women's Law Project, could randomly audit investigations.

Carol E. Tracy, executive director of the Women's Law Project, is to testify at the hearing next week. She said the department did a good job today, but added:

"I think the oversight shows that vigilance is necessary. Every year, we'll find something that is problematic - not a crisis, but something that could become one."

Contact staff writer Craig R. McCoy at 215-854-4821 or cmccoy@phillynews.com.

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