Why the problem exists

In recent years, investigative reporting has raised awareness about untested rape kits across America.  But misconceptions persist about how we got to this point. Contrary to the popular narrative, untested rape kits are not the problem. They are just one symptom of larger problems with policing rape. All of this contributes to a hidden rape crisis.

Why do police mishandle rape cases?

The FBI’s Uniform Crime Reports (UCR) program relies on police departments to provide accurate numbers.  Departments feel pressure to tamper with numbers to show “improvement.”  Lower crime rates make public officials look more successful, resulting in improved reputations and future career opportunities.  So, police departments have a strong incentive to manipulate crime data.  Because of lack of oversight and quality control by the FBI, police departments have the opportunity to tamper with numbers in secret.

While police manipulate data for all crimes, it is worth noting that rape cases are especially easy to bury.  How do police departments do it?

There are three key ways police tamper with rape statistics:

  • Police will not create a full written report of rape.  Instead, they will record informal notes as a memo, which does not get counted in the national crime statistics.  Memos do not get filed among active cases, and recording crimes as memos eliminates the paper trail of the case from the beginning.
  • Police will record the crime as something other than a rape.  For instance, if a victim reports being raped by a stranger in her home, the police may write up a report, but classify the incident as trespassing, leaving out the actual attack on the victim.
  • Police will classify an assault as “unfounded.”  Where police do not believe a crime occurred, they will mark the incident as “unfounded.”  The FBI suggests that police should only use this designation after conducting an investigation and proving that the crime did not occur.  Unfortunately, police often label cases “unfounded” without first investigating.  “Unfounded” cases are not counted in the national crime statistics.  This is the most prevalent means of manipulating rape data.

When police downplay rape cases, they do not test rape kits.  It is inaccurate and dangerous to call this phenomenon a “backlog.”

Why is this dangerous?

Because higher-ups encourage police not to record all sex crimes, the department’s numbers mislead the public.  And because the public doesn’t know officials are tampering with the numbers, they can’t hold their leaders accountable.  And because the system appears to be functioning well, the resources for victims receive less and less funding.  Where there should be cries of outrage, there is a false sense of security among everyone except the people impacted — the victims.

The final result is the mess we see — or don’t see — today.

People for the Enforcement of Rape Laws is a program of the Mid-South Peace and Justice Center to monitor law enforcement responses to sexual violence, develop peer advocacy, and organize for criminal justice reform. We urge you to learn more about America’s hidden rape crisis, where it has been exposed, and why it matters. We invite you to take action and support our efforts to make sure law enforcement takes rape seriously.