Rape Definition Too Narrow in Federal Statistics, Critics Say
By ERICA GOODE
— Thousands of sexual assaults that occur in the United States every year are not reflected in the federal government’s yearly crime report because the report uses an archaic definition of rape that is far narrower than the definitions used by most police departments.
Carol Tracy said at a meeting in Washington that federal figures failed to portray the extent of sexual assaults accurately.
Many law enforcement officials and advocates for women say that this underreporting misleads the public about the prevalence of rape and results in fewer federal, state and local resources being devoted to catching rapists and helping rape victims. Rape crisis centers are among groups that cite the federal figures in applying for private and public financing.
“The public has the right to know about the prevalence of crime and violent crime in our communities, and we know that data drives practices, resources, policies and programs,” said Carol Tracy, executive director of the Women’s Law Project in Philadelphia, whose office has campaigned to get the F.B.I. to change its definition of sexual assault. “It’s critical that we strive to have accurate information about this.”
Ms. Tracy spoke Friday at a meeting in Washington, organized by the Police Executive Research Forum, that brought together police chiefs, sex-crime investigators, federal officials and advocates to discuss the limitations of the federal definition and the wider issue of local police departments’ not adequately investigating rape.
According to the 2010 Uniform Crime Report, released by the Federal Bureau of Investigation last week, there were 84,767 sexual assaults in the United States last year, a 5 percent drop from 2009.
The definition of rape used by the F.B.I. — “the carnal knowledge of a female, forcibly and against her will” — was written more than 80 years ago. The yearly report on violent crime, which uses data provided voluntarily by the nation’s 18,000 law enforcement agencies, is widely cited as an indicator of national crime trends.
But that definition, critics say, does not take into account sexual-assault cases that involve anal or oral penetration or penetration with an object, cases where the victims were drugged or under the influence of alcohol or cases with male victims. As a result, many sexual assaults are not counted as rapes in the yearly federal accounting.
“The data that are reported to the public come from this definition, and sadly, it portrays a very, very distorted picture,” said Susan B. Carbon, director of the Office on Violence Against Women, part of the Department of Justice. “It’s the message that we’re sending to victims, and if you don’t fit that very narrow definition, you weren’t a victim and your rape didn’t count.”
Steve Anderson, chief of the Metropolitan Nashville Police Department, said that the F.B.I.’s definition created a double standard for police departments.
“We prosecute by one criteria, but we report by another criteria,” Chief Anderson said. “The only people who have a true picture of what’s going on are the people in the sex-crimes unit.”
In Chicago, the Police Department recorded close to 1,400 sexual assaults in 2010, according to the department’s Web site. But none of these appeared in the federal crime report because Chicago’s broader definition of rape is not accepted by the F.B.I.
The New York Police Department reported 1,369 rapes, but only 1,036 — the ones that fit the federal definition — were entered in the federal figures. And in Elizabeth Township, Pa., the sexual assault of a woman last year was widely discussed by residents. Yet according to the F.B.I.’s report, no rapes were reported in Elizabeth in 2010.
In a recent survey by the Police Executive Research Forum, almost 80 percent of the 306 police departments that responded said that the federal definition of rape used by the Uniform Crime Report was inadequate and should be changed.
Greg Scarbro, the F.B.I.’s unit chief for the Uniformed Crime Report, said that the agency agreed that the definition should be revised and that an F.B.I. subcommittee would take up the issue at a meeting on Oct. 18.
“Our goal will be to leave that meeting with a definition and a mechanism,” Mr. Scarbro said. But he noted that law enforcement agencies would have to support any change.
A more comprehensive definition of rape is used by the National Incident-Based Reporting System, or NIBRS, started in 1988 to address deficiencies in the Uniform Crime Report. But that system covers 28 percent of the population and has not gained wide traction as a reporting method. If the F.B.I. does adopt a broader definition, law enforcement agencies — especially those that use the federal standard in their own counts — may find themselves explaining a sudden increase in reported rapes.
“You can’t ignore the politics of crime,” said Charles H. Ramsey, commissioner of the Philadelphia Police Department and the president of the police research forum, who backs changing the federal definition.
“With the new definition, it’s going to dramatically change the numbers,” Commissioner Ramsey said. Police chiefs will then need to explain to the public that the increase represents an improvement in reporting, rather than a jump in actual numbers of sexual assaults.
The Chicago Police Department uses a definition of sexual assault laid out by Illinois statute. Currently, the Uniform Crime Report does not include any rape statistics from Chicago; a footnote in the report says that the city’s methodology “does not comply with the Uniform Crime Reporting Program guidelines.” The Chicago department plans to start reporting the subset of rapes that meet the federal definition to the F.B.I., said Robert Tracy, chief of crime control strategies.
Tom Byrne, chief of detectives in Chicago, said at the meeting earlier in the day on Friday, “If we conformed to the U.C.R. definition, technically we’re going to be taking rapes off the books.”
The gap between the federal counts and the real numbers reported to the police may be most apparent in small towns, said Robert W. McNeilly, police chief in Elizabeth Township, just outside Pittsburgh.
“When we have a sexual assault in a small town, people know about it, people talk about it,” he said. “But when the U.C.R. report comes out at the end of the year and we report zero rapes, I think we lose credibility.”
In some cases, however, police departments contribute to the problem. The Baltimore Police Department made sweeping changes in the way it dealt with sexual assault after The Baltimore Sun revealed last year that the department had been labeling reports of rape as “unfounded” at a rate five times the national average.
The problem, Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III said, was rooted in the attitudes and lack of understanding of officers toward rape and rape victims.
“We didn’t just suddenly veer off the road and strike a tree — this was a very long process that led to this problem,” Commissioner Bealefeld said.
After making changes, the department saw an 80 percent reduction in “unfounded” classifications. But because they had been misclassified, Commissioner Bealefeld said, those cases never appeared in the Uniform Crime Report.
“When you unfound those cases, you take it off your U.C.R. numbers, as though they never occurred,” he said.