Study suggests police systematically undercount rape reports

police car

Corey Rayburn Yung, an associate professor at the University of Kansas School of Law, has published a startling study in the Iowa Law Review. Based on his investigations of Baltimore, New Orleans, Philadelphia, and St. Louis law enforcement and victim narratives from across the country, Yung believes that police officers are undercounting rape reports — and convincing the American people that we’re “winning the battle against sexual violence” when we’re simply failing more quietly than before. The professor writes:

During the last two decades, many police departments substantially undercounted reported rapes creating “paper” reductions in crime. Media investigations in Baltimore, New Orleans, Philadelphia, and St. Louis found that police eliminated rape complaints from official counts because of cultural hostility to rape complaints and to create the illusion of success in fighting violent crime. The undercounting cities used three difficult-to-detect methods to remove rape complaints from official records: designating a complaint as “unfounded” with little or no investigation; classifying an incident as a lesser offense; and, failing to create a written report that a victim made a rape complaint.

Yung’s study calls into doubt claims from the past few years that rates of sexual violence have steadily decreased in the U.S. I don’t have enough of a quant background to vouch for the methodology here and we can’t know if the entire decline claimed by law enforcement is due to police coverups  –  but Yung thinks it might be: the study period, 1995-2012, covers much of the era of supposed crime reduction (according to official records) but actually includes, by the paper’s account, 15 to 18 of the years that saw the highest rates of rape since 1930 (when data was first collected). “Instead of experiencing the widely reported “great decline” in rape,” Yung writes, “America is in the midst of a hidden rape crisis.”

Despite popular narratives of police heroes (and heroines, I see you Detective Benson) chasing down rapists, I doubt many survivors or advocates will be surprised to read a story of sexual violence in America that casts the police as the bad guy: Feministing writers have previously covered the ways criminal law enforcement fails to address victims’ or communities’ needs while perpetuating state violence. Yung’s study is particularly powerful, though, because it addresses common defenses of police abuse: it’s just a few bad apples or they just need better training. These excuses don’t square with the forceful portrait Yung paints of departments systematically and purposefully erasing rape.

And while our foremost concern should be with the individual survivors ignored by the authority to which they turned for help, we have to acknowledge the effects of coverups on our national approach to rape and assault. For the last few decades official statistics have indicated that our current carceral response to sexual violence works moderately well, but Yung’s study suggests what many survivors have long known: the way we now try to stop rape is neither just nor effective. Yung points out that police departments have deprioritized anti-rape efforts “as crime data has lessened the perceived urgency for action.” I disagree that increased police action is the answer, but take the paper’s point that an inaccurate narrative of success has legitimized dangerous complacency. If the police had provided accurate statistics, we might have gathered the political will to push for serious alternatives sooner; instead, if Yung’s theory is correct, we were collectively distracted from victims’ firsthand knowledge by comforting, simple numbers.

We know better now. Let’s do something about it.

Alexandra Brodsky is an editor at Feministing, a founding co-director of Know Your IX, and a student at Yale Law School.

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