Philadelphia Inquirer, June 22, 2003
By Craig R. McCoy, Inquirer Staff Writer
Despite skyrocketing arrests and praise for a new sensitivity to victims, Philadelphia police are still classifying a large number of rape and child-abuse complaints as something other than crimes.
New figures, compiled at The Inquirer's request, show that the Special Victims Unit coded one in four complaints last year as a noncrime.
Inspector Joseph M. Mooney, whose command includes the unit, said he was surprised that the tally came up with such a relatively high total of such cases.
Carol Tracy, executive director of the Women's Law Project, said she, too, was surprised. For two years, her group, along with Women Organized Against Rape and advocates for abused children, has been auditing the rape squad's investigations.
Tracy said this random review of cases had found no sign that police were dumping real crimes.
But Tracy said that advocates would now focus on the noncrime cases in their review next month.
With beat police sending more cases up for investigation, the rape unit's caseload has grown dramatically. It handled 5,600 cases last year - up 2,000 from five years ago.
Mooney said he was confident his officers were not using noncrime categories to "park" cases.
"Because of all the things that have gone on here, we scrutinize all these jobs," Mooney said, using a common police slang for cases.
Before 2000, the unit was routinely ditching cases in a statistical limbo.
In 1997, it coded 894 cases, a quarter of its caseload, under the heading of "investigation of person." The year before that, it put even more there - 1,999 cases.
The unit has since banned that classification, but still uses other noncrime codes.
Mooney said the squad still received many complaints that, when investigated, could not be labeled as crimes.
Most commonly, he said these reports came from social workers, passing along tips about possible child abuse from "mandatory reporters" - doctors, teachers, day-care workers. Law requires these people to report signs of child abuse to authorities.
These referrals have grown in recent years because the city's social workers have gotten better at detecting and reporting suspected child abuse, experts say.
Among those reports, Mooney said, were a significant number in which children, when interviewed by police, would say no attack took place or wouldn't talk about it.
He said the unit did not label these as crimes since the reported victims themselves would not level an accusation.
If detectives confirm a report, Mooney said, it is recoded as a crime. If not, it remains classified this way: Third-party report - child abuse - sexual.
Advocates say more of these complaints should be coded as crimes.
At the same time, the squad is also labeling many more reports as rapes and related crimes.
For example, last year's rape total - 1,035 rapes - was up 50 percent from when the squad was dumping cases.
Advocates say this reflects more accurate labeling, not a surge in attacks.
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