Are our crime statistics rising? Is our city becoming a haven for burglars, rapists and murders? We find out how safe we are from the Uniform Crime Reports, the official FBI tabulations taken from local law enforcement reports.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation puts out a little booklet telling peace officers exactly how each crime is to be categorized. Thus crime reports will be uniform throughout the country and we, the crime-watching public, have some basis for comparison.Well, the statistics might be reliable for murder and robbery, but they don't hold up for rape, according to Harvard law professor Susan Estrich. "Different jurisdictions follow different policies in marking complaints "founded" or "unfounded," complains Estrich, "and those differences make the national rape statistics almost
"Comparisons between cities are virtually impossible."
The problem with rape statistics is that some police officers apply the "unfounded" crime label more freely to rapes than they do with other crimes.
Estrich explains it this way: The police always believe a woman who says someone stole her stereo. They don't necessarily believe a woman who says she was raped.
The unfounded category exists because every year a certain percentage of the crimes that get reported didn't really happen.
For example, an officer investigates a burglary and finds out the "stolen" property just turned up at the victim's son's apartment.
Then an officer gets an autopsy report and finds out that the "murder victim" actually died of a heart attack.
Next an officer goes out to interview a rape victim and finds out that the man she's accusing is her former boyfriend.
The officer writes "unfounded" across the first case file, and it's as if that particular burglary never happened. It doesn't get reported in the local, state or national crime statistics.
The same thing happens with the murder case. No murder took place, so who wants that particular case skewing the homicide statistics? But what about the rape? Should the police officer decide the woman is lying or the case doesn't stand a chance in court? Should the police officer write "unfounded" across the case record? Not according to the FBI guidelines, says Estrich. Yet she says, that's what often happens.
Estrich quotes a recent study in New York that showed police "unfounded" 24 percent of acquaintance-rape cases as opposed to 5 percent of stranger-rape cases.
She quotes another study that compares "unfounded" rape cases in different cities. Detroit police said 1.3 percent of their rape cases were unfounded, while Chicago police said 54.1 percent of their rape cases were unfounded.
Police education is the key to making sure rape victims are believed as often as other crime victims are believed, says Christine Watters.
As the director of the Salt Lake Rape Crisis Center, Watters occasionally speaks to police and sheriff's departments as part of ongoing officer training.
She encourages officers to talk about what they see as the typical profile of a rape victim. And she shows a film in which a male police officer talks about how he was raped and his car was stolen.
"The film strikes home," says Watters. "It helps officers understand that what rape victims have in common is vulnerability."
Does knowing that even male police officers can be vulnerable to rape actually translate into lower percentages of unfounded rape cases? "It should," says Watters. "Increased knowledge and sensitivity should help.
"The rate of unfoundeds should be about 10 percent," Watters says. "If you are seeing rates much higher than that, your police officers have an attitude problem."