International Conference & Summit on Violence, Abuse & Trauma
Panel: Clinical Lessons from Journalists
Conversation with Aluf Benn
Deadline: Ochberg Fellowship Application
The young woman came to St. Louis police headquarters to report a rape. She gave detectives a detailed account of what had happened, then refused to answer more questions and "stared at the wall, " according to a detective's memo about it.
Despite her report, a detective asked her to sign a statement that she, against police advice, had not reported a rape. Her signature released them from an investigation.
The woman said in an interview with the Post-Dispatch that she wanted to report the rape but was unsure about pursuing criminal charges.
The incident in June 2003 was not counted in the city's annual crime tally. It was not investigated. Police wrote an informal memo rather than an official report. All records of the case were scheduled to be destroyed last fall; a Post-Dispatch request to view police memos saved it from the shredder.
It appears to have been a common series of events at St. Louis police headquarters: Women report rapes and then are given forms to sign that say they didn't.
The process removed rape complaints from police caseloads and from the crime statistics, a Post-Dispatch investigation has found.
The young woman described a classic date rape: a teenage make-out session that escalated beyond her consent. Tickling on the sofa led to watching a video in a spare bedroom. He wanted to go all the way, but she didn't. He pulled off her pants and forced her to have sex, she said.
A memo by a sex crimes detective seemed to capture her allegation in cinematic detail: the hand working down her pants; her arms being pinned down; semen spilling on the mattress; Austin Powers jesting on the TV in the background.
But the detective wrote that the woman, then 18, was too vague. She kept answering "I guess" and "probably."
After a while, he wrote, she was just staring at the wall. Two of his colleagues couldn't draw her out any further.
What did police give the teen to sign? St. Louis police call it a "Sexual Assault Victim Waiver."
"We will present a waiver to a victim after they've told us either they don't want any further action taken, if they've misrepresented the truth, if they want this case to stop (or if) they don't want to be involved in any way, " said Capt. Mary Warnecke, former commander of the Sex Crimes Section.
Said Chief Joe Mokwa: "We have a certain responsibility to respect the victims, so if a victim signs a form or tells us they don't want to communicate with us, we choose, based on the victim's choice, not to communicate with that victim any further."
"No gray areas"
While most police departments have some way of documenting a victim's reluctance to cooperate, experts in crime data and rape investigations said they had never heard of police using such a form to nullify a report of a crime.
FBI crime reporting guidelines instruct police departments to make permanent records of crimes brought to their attention, regardless of whether a victim cooperates. Those are to be counted in a city's Uniform Crime Report; police may subtract complaints that are proven false, including cases in which the victim recants.
The incident involving the 18-year-old should have been reported as a rape, according to Bill Ault, who audits St. Louis crime data for the Missouri Highway Patrol. "There are no gray areas here."
If a woman reports a rape, her failure to cooperate is not enough to erase the complaint, the FBI guidelines say. Authorities don't need a victim's permission to go forward with a case, particularly if they think an attacker poses a danger to others.
Michelle Anderson, an expert in rape law, said the interview with the St. Louis victim revealed "no understanding of how sexual trauma actually manifests itself in victims."
"It manifests itself often as confusion, selective memory, disassociation, hyperarousal and sensitivity, " said Anderson, a professor at Villanova University School of Law, near Philadelphia. "So, for instance, in (this) case, she's staring at the wall and spacing out. That's an absolutely normal reaction to trauma."
An expert in rape investigations said the crime should have been counted -- and investigated.
"What gives them the right not to call this a crime?" asked Joanne Archambault, a retired San Diego police sergeant who trains police nationwide in how to investigate sexual crimes. "We have no idea how much interrogation this victim is getting before she gets to Sex Crimes. And then she says, 'OK, I'm leaving, ' and they don't understand why?"
In St. Louis, waivers are unique to the Sex Crimes Section. Police don't ask shooting victims, for example, to decline to file assault reports.
Sex crimes detectives used waivers several dozen times in the previous two years, a Post-Dispatch review has found. Many of the cases went uncounted in crime statistics, although they should have been included under uniform crime reporting guidelines.
About half involved people who admitted fabricating at least part of their complaints. One example -- a teenager who made up an abduction to explain a missed curfew. Those should have been reported to the FBI as unfounded complaints, and subtracted from crime totals, according to the bureau's guidelines.
But police also failed to count cases in which women signed waivers but did not recant their allegations. Those should have counted as crimes, the FBI guidelines say.
Experts who reviewed the memos said it appeared the St. Louis detectives were screening cases to determine the likelihood of criminal convictions.
Police should not be weeding cases out of the criminal justice system, said Jack Levin, director of the Brudnick Center on Violence at Northeastern University in Boston, who reviewed several St. Louis memos at the newspaper's request. It's their role to collect information -- not prosecute cases, he said.
One case left out of statistics involved a 15-year-old girl from north St. Louis County who told police in January 2003 that a boy drove her to a deserted spot on the city's riverfront. They had consensual oral sex, but then he raped her while she pleaded for him to stop, she reported.
Her mother told the Post-Dispatch that police had been pleasant throughout the ordeal, but when it was clear that her daughter was too traumatized to press charges, they asked her to sign the waiver.
The mother, a teacher, said she did not know it meant that her daughter's complaint would not be considered a real crime.
"We just didn't feel she could stand up in trial, " her mother said. "It would have been far more devastating for her."
Shortly after the department provided the memo about her daughter's case to the Post-Dispatch, a detective called the mother to see whether her daughter had changed her mind about prosecuting, the mother said.
It was an option she wouldn't have been able to exercise had the department destroyed the memo last year, as planned.
The girl declined once again, however.
"I thought it was strange they called, " the mother said. "This happened almost three years ago."
Questioning rape claims
In another case, a 17-year-old girl told police that she awoke in a friend's bedroom after a night of drinking, wearing only her socks. The friend confessed that he and another man had sex with her after she passed out.
"Could you tell the difference between us?" she said he joked.
Though she couldn't remember the intercourse, she felt violated, she said.
"If someone has to tell me I slept with him, it's rape, " she said.
She was examined at St. Louis University Hospital immediately afterward. A nurse collected evidence for a rape kit. A uniformed police officer interviewed her at the hospital and referred the case to the Sex Crimes Section.
Nearly three months later, she went downtown to meet a detective about her case; she ended up signing a waiver.
A memo written on Feb. 20, 2003, by a detective says the victim "decided not to report the incident." The case was neither investigated nor counted in crime statistics.
Why would someone sign a waiver after describing the incident for police -- twice -- and submitting to a rape examination?
"Because they made me feel like dirt when I went down there, " said the woman, now 20. "They kept asking me, was I sure that I didn't sleep with them purposefully and that I didn't just change my mind? They kept asking in different ways each and every time."
She said police explained to her that the questions were necessary because "some people lie about it."
Ultimately, she worried about what would happen if a jury did not convict the man.
"They said that if it goes as far as court and everything, that he still might get off with it, so they were saying we could go through all this and he still gets off, it would basically be a waste of time."
Anderson, the rape law expert from Villanova, said she was troubled by interviews that seemed aimed at poking holes in sexual assault claims and suggested it could be a reason some girls and women changed their minds about reporting rapes.
"In these cases, the Police Department is functioning as a first line of the suspects' defense team, aggressively cross-examining traumatized victims and seizing on minor inconsistencies to discredit them, " she said.
The woman who reported the rape said she felt discredited.
"They just made me feel -- they handled it in a bad way, " she said. "The way they talk to people, it was automatically as if I was a bad person, not the victim."
Your contributions help the Dart Center nurture informed, innovative and ethical news reporting on violence, conflict and tragedy worldwide.
The Dart Center is a project of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.