Atlanta cops ignored 'suspicious' rape cases
In July last year, Atlanta police responded to a call at Grady Memorial Hospital. A woman there told them she had been walking on Boulevard looking for a hotel when a man approached her. The woman went with the man and eventually followed him behind Austin T. Walden Middle School on Irwin Street where, she said, she was beaten and raped.
The victim had been struck in the head, according to the report, and there was no indication of drugs or alcohol being involved.
Under normal circumstances, information about the alleged crime would have been distributed to patrol cops, who would have known to be on the lookout for a suspect who fit the description of the assailant. The so-called rape kit — the actual exam results, collected at the hospital, in which DNA evidence is contained — would have been taken to the GBI for analysis and storage.
But patrol cops didn't find out about this case, because it wasn't filed and given a case number until Feb. 11, seven months after the initial complaint. And police don't know what happened to the rape kit in that case and 33 others like it.
Instead, the report was filed by Atlanta sex crime detectives in a secret folder for women whose stories about rape they found suspicious. The practice began in 1999 and stretched into the first month of this year, according to published reports.
So far, 34 misfiled rapes have been uncovered as a result of an audit by Atlanta police. The investigation was initiated only after an anonymous letter alleging the misconduct circulated to police brass, according to a source within the Atlanta Police Department. The commander of the sex crimes unit, Lt. Terrence Steele, has since been re-assigned to patrol, and the missing cases re-assigned to investigators. The alleged crimes will be recorded as rapes or sexual assaults in this year's crime statistics. An internal investigation is trying to determine what happened to the rape kits — whether they made it to the GBI or not, says Atlanta police Deputy Chief C.B. Jackson.
The GBI, though, requires rape kits to have an agency case number before they're processed, says Ted Staples, manager of the GBI's biological section. So the state probably never even received them.
Unlike other Georgia law enforcement agencies, Atlanta police don't foot the bill for rape exams (a $500-$1,200 expense). Grady picks up the tab, which makes the creation of the secret files all the more perplexing, says Clair Pearson, the spokeswoman for the Georgia Network to End Sexual Assault.
"There's no reason not to investigate fully," Pearson says. "We can't tell you our shock and dismay.
"Those 34 victims have no chance to put their attackers in jail."
Jackson says police are not sure who set up the secret file, but it probably came in response to a problem investigators sometimes run into in rape cases in which the victim makes some initial statements, is examined at a hospital but never follows up on the complaint.
"We are aware that in the past we had not dealt in the best manner with rape victims," Jackson says. And because of that history, many rapes might have gone unreported, but "to set up a clandestine system to deal with the problem was the wrong thing to do."
The GNESA has worked with Steele, and Atlanta is one of the few police departments in Georgia with a separate sex crimes unit. The officers are educated, Pearson says, noticeably exasperated. "[Yet] it's still the victim's fault."
The FBI reports that only one of 10 rapes is actually reported. There's still a strong stigma to admitting one is a victim of rape. So APD's underreporting is just worsening the problem. And since rapists have a recidivism rate of 67 percent, it's possible that a rape fitting the profile of one the cases in the secret file could have happened again — only cops wouldn't have known to connect the two cases, Pearson says.
Jackson says officers could have followed a specific procedure to "unfound" the cases if information contradicted the rape allegation. Or they could have made the investigation inactive if the victim failed to follow up on the initial rape report.
This is not the first time city police have had trouble keeping crime statistics straight. A GBI investigation into 1996 crime stats turned up 56 omitted rapes and nearly 500 robberies that weren't counted. No one was prosecuted for the omissions.