Victims' testimony at congressional hearing show "chronic failure" in rape investigations

By Michael Matza

 

WASHINGTON - Holding a gun to Sarah Reedy's head, her attacker demanded oral sex.

 

The Pennsylvania woman, 19 at the time, was working the late shift at a gas station near Pittsburgh in 2004. She survived the assault - then had to endure the skepticism of a local police detective after she called 911.

 

Instead of believing her, the officer assumed she had robbed the station and fabricated the rape as a cover-up, she testified during a congressional hearing Tuesday.

 

Chaired by Sen. Arlen Specter (D., Pa.), the session was convened to explore what Specter and a dozen witnesses - including Philadelphia Police Commissioner Charles H. Ramsey, Carol E. Tracy of the Women's Law Project of Philadelphia, and Villanova University law professor Michelle Dempsey - called "the chronic failure" of law enforcement to thoroughly investigate rapes.

 

Tracy explained that Philadelphia police had severely underreported rapes for decades through the 1990s, a problem brought to light by Inquirer investigative reporting, she said. In response to the problem, then-Police Commissioner John F. Timoney allowed Tracy's group to annually audit the performance of the Special Victims Unit, a practice that has continued under Ramsey.

 

Ramsey heads the Police Executive Research Forum, a law enforcement association dedicated to sharing best practices. He said Tuesday that he will call "a summit" on sexual assault in the coming year and urge other departments to work with advocacy groups in their jurisdictions to adopt the type of auditing arrangement that Philadelphia police have with the Women's Law Project.

 

Specter said he scheduled the hearing of a subcommittee of the Judiciary Committee at the urging of Tracy, who had become aware of chronic underreporting in Baltimore, New York, St. Louis, New Orleans, Cleveland, and several other cities. The Judiciary Committee oversees the FBI.

 

Tracy and several other witnesses said it was well past time for the FBI, which oversees the reporting of crime through the Uniform Crime Report (UCR), to update the definition of rape. Since the 1920s, it has been considered to be forcible carnal knowledge of a female by a male - a definition that, Dempsey said, is "archaic, old-fashioned, insulting."

 

Several witnesses said the current definition of rape fails to consider penetration by body parts other than the penis or by foreign objects, anal and oral rape, and homosexual rape. The witnesses also said the illustrations in the UCR handbook provide poor guidance on such issues as acquaintance rape and violence against an intimate partner.

 

Tracy said that in September 2001, her group wrote to the FBI asking for a review of the definition of rape, but the FBI never replied.

 

"I am sorry that the FBI has not responded to your letter," Specter said with his trademark drawl. "I will let you know when they respond to mine."

 

The remark drew a chuckle from the audience of 100.

 

While the advocates' testimony was finely focused, the stories of the two rape survivors on the panel struck the strongest chords.

 

Continuing her testimony, Reedy said another woman was assaulted near the site of her 2004 attack about two months later.

 

"This woman gave almost the same description [of the attacker] . . . and his M.O.," but the detective "was unable or just refused to make the connection," said Reedy. Instead, he subsequently charged Reedy with theft because he didn't believe she was telling the truth about her own attack.

 

While awaiting trial, she contacted a state crime tip line and said she thought she had been attacked by the same man they were seeking in the second incident.

 

Almost a year passed before a man was caught in the act of sexually assaulting another attendant at a nearby gas station. After his arrest he confessed to a dozen sexual assaults, including Reedy's.

 

Sen. Al Franken (D., Minn.) had just one question: Was that detective still on the force?

 

Reedy said he was.

 

"That to me," said Franken, "is pretty amazing."

 

(To read original article, visit this Philadelphia Inquirer link.)

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