There’s been a lot of ill-informed speculation about “dubious” rape statistics on college campuses lately. Here’s something to consider regarding our national understanding of rape: police departments continue to undercount and miscategorize rape allegations, the result being that for decades the actual counts of cases of sexual assault have been and continue to be suppressed.
Earlier this month, a 911 dispatcher in Ohio was recorded telling a 20-year-old woman who had just been raped to “quit crying.” After she provided a description of her assailant, the caller went on to say, “They’re not going to be able to find him with the information that you’ve given.” This incident had its viral moment, sparking outrage at the dispatcher’s lack of empathy. But it also speaks to the larger issue of how we are counting rapes in the United States. Sixty-nine percent of police departments surveyed in 2012 said that dispatchers like this one, often with little training, are authorized to do the initial coding of sexual assault crimes.
That’s important, because miscoding of such crimes is masking the high incidence of rape in the United States. We don’t have an overestimation of rape; we have a gross underestimation. A thorough analysis of federal data published earlier this year by Corey Rayburn Yung, associate professor at the University of Kansas School of Law, concludes that between 1995 and 2012, police departments across the country systematically undercounted and underreported sexual assaults.
Yung used murder rates—the statistic with the most reliable measure of accuracy and one that is historically highly correlated with the incidence of rape—as a baseline for his analysis. After nearly two years of work, he estimates conservatively that between 796,213 and 1,145,309 sexual assault cases never made it into national FBI counts during the studied period.
That’s more than 1 million rapes.
How are police departments undercounting sexual assault? (See details for all points below here in this piece in The Nation.)
- One of the primary ways is that officers discount victim testimony, categorizing complaints as “unfounded” or reclassifying allegations of rape as “noncriminal” minor offenses.
- Second, police departments have been found to destroy records and ignore or mishandle evidence, which leads not only to undercounting but dismissal of cases. Many of the jurisdictions showing consistent undercounting are also, unsurprisingly, those with rape kit backlogs (there are more than 400,000 untested kits in the United States). After being publicly shamed for having abandoned more than 11,000 rape kits, the Michigan State Police began testing them, identifying 100 serial rapists as a result.
- Third, police departments continue to ignore rapes of women thought of as “fringe,” including prostitutes, runaways, transwomen, drug addicts and people considered transient. Women of color in particular face difficulties. For example, for years, women repeatedly went to the police in Cleveland to report that Anthony Sowell had raped, beaten or otherwise violently assaulted them at his house. Little was done until 2009, when police finally found eleven decomposing bodies of women there.
- Fourth, people making complaints are often harassed out of pursing them. In 2012, the police department of Cranberry Township, Pennsylvania, near Pittsburgh, was held liable in a case in which police accused a reporting victim of lying during her interview, at one point telling her, “Your tears won’t save you now,” and failing to pursue the investigation. In St. Louis, victims were strongly urged by police to sign Sexual Assault Victim Waivers absolving police from responsibility to investigate or report the crime as a rape to the FBI. Victims of sexual assault routinely encounter hostility, doubt and aggressive questioning. When they do not conform to officers’ preconceived ideas about how rape victims “should” act, officers’ implicit biases come into play and, as a result, victims often feel they are the ones being investigated. These issues are often compounded by racism. Native American women, who suffer the highest rates of sexual assault in the country, describe being questioned about mental illness, drug use, alcohol abuse and more when reporting assaults. While some jurisdictions have substantially improved their policies, with many women reporting compassionate treatment by police, many others continue to report the opposite.
Police officers display the same implicit biases as the general public, a tendency also evident at colleges and universities, where campus police are often more focused on investigating the credibility of victims than in whether or not their vulnerability was exploited in a predatory way. Interestingly, the longer an officer has worked in a sexual assault unit, the less likely he or she is to believe in false claims.Here’s what’s very interesting:
- A majority of detectives with between one and seven years of experience believe that 40 percent of claims are false—in some cases that number is as high as 80 percent.
- But among officers with more than eight years’ experience, the rate drops precipitously, to 10 percent. On campus or off, these beliefs persist, despite the fact that rates of false allegations of rape are well understood by criminologists and other social scientists to be between 2 percent and 8 percent, in line with false allegations of other crimes.
In the meantime, as Yung puts it, “the sheer magnitude of the missing data…is staggering.” Of course, we need far more than improved police work, and undercounting is only part of the problem. Even when cases are properly recorded and investigated, the patterns evidenced in Yung’s analysis and the PERF report are reproduced in courtrooms, where rapists in most states still have the right to sue for custody of the children born of their assaults. And only 3 percent of rapists are ever imprisoned—that’s a crime we aren’t talking about.
Yung believes that these statistical distortions have significantly altered the nation’s historical record and understanding of rape in America.
Yung’s report, by the way, is titled “How to Lie with Rape Statistics: America’s Hidden Rape Crisis.”