APB Online

May 30, 2000

Phila. Scrutinizes Unfounded Sex Crimes

Police, Victims' Advocates Hope to Crack Cold Cases

APB Online

Police Commissioner John F. Timoney
PHILADELPHIA (AP) -- At the end of the line for sex crime cases are the so-called unfounded files.

In them are attacks on women that are so random police are stumped, accusations by children that are so wild they cannot be used or recanted testimony by women against abusive husbands.

Now Philadelphia police are taking a second look. Officials have invited a handful of special victims' advocates to examine these dead-end cases and make recommendations to police about ways they can be revived.

It's believed to be the first time a city's police department has opened its sex crimes cases to scrutiny from victims' groups.

Department admitted misreporting assaults

While supporters say the openness will benefit future investigations, police officials hope it will also help improve the image of the city's troubled sex crimes unit. Earlier this year, the department admitted misreporting thousands of sexual assaults over the past decade to make the city appear safer than it was.

To help remedy the situation, Police Commissioner John Timoney ordered a review of thousands of old cases, added dozens of new detectives and -- in a surprise concession -- allowed a handful of advocates for women and children to review cases.

"I made a conscious decision to blow the doors open. Will you get blown apart sometimes? Sure," Timoney said. "But the bad stories will come out anyway, and this way all the information is out there."

Six legal experts and victims' advocates made three visits this month to the special victims unit. The group sifted through about 100 rape and attempted-rape cases from 1999 that were classified as unfounded.

After the first two meetings, the group requested the full case files for 20 cases. Last week, the group presented officials with 10 cases that the advocates thought needed to be reviewed.

Dialogue with officials

The names of victims and suspects were blocked out on the initial reports; identities were included in the full reports, but advocates agreed not to take notes or disclose identities.

"We saw some teenagers who we thought maybe might have been raped, who changed their story maybe because they were afraid of getting in trouble," said Carol Tracy, executive director of the Women's Law Project.

The unique experiment yielded unprecedented dialogue with police, advocates said. Police officials remembered specific cases and sometimes discussed why a suspect was not interviewed or promised to ask the investigator about reinterviewing a victim.

"I think they have taken many corrective measures," said Tracy.

Capt. Joseph Mooney, a former internal affairs detective now leading the special victims unit, said the outside guidance was helpful and is likely to continue.

"The advocates have worked with victims and cases similar to this, so you get an insight into victims. You don't see that side of it as clearly as you would or could on the police side," Mooney said.

Evolving experiment

The experiment is evolving. Advocates want to study the city's sexual assault cases and look for trends, such as the tendency for Philadelphia's assault victims to be under age 18, Tracy said.

The cooperation developed after The Philadelphia Inquirer reported last fall that thousands of sexual assault cases had been improperly shelved since the sex crimes unit was founded in 1981. Police officials confirmed that many were classified in a way that helped deflate crime statistics.

The International Association of Chiefs of Police, which had criticized the use of outside review as relying on untrained observers to do police work, recently reassessed its stance, noting that bringing in knowledgeable victims' groups is a good way to improve community relations.

"Partnership between police and these groups is in line with national and innovate thinking. You have a situation where police gain expertise and information that they might not have on their own," said John Firman, research director of the association.

Experts say the open dialogue and access to police files is helpful, especially for victims' groups, typically among the most critical of police activity.

"Often in homicide cases, when they have a cold case, they'll seek outside experts," said University of Pennsylvania professor Ann Burgess, who has written six books about sex crime victims and offenders. "This is a little different, but what they are asking is similar, 'Have you seen something here that we have missed?'"

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