Statistics on forcible rapes are called into question
October 02, 2011
Worcester Telegram & Gazette, by Scott J. Croteau
Statistics can be deceiving. In the case of recent statistics released by the FBI, some numbers just can't be true.
The FBI's Uniform Crime Report for 2010 shows Worcester having 19 forcible rapes reported for the year. The number is a stark contrast to the 124 that Worcester reported in 2006 and from those reported by Hartford, Providence and Springfield, cities similar in size to Worcester.
FBI statistics show forcible rapes decreased in Worcester a whopping 84.6 percent from 2006 to 2010, a drop that rape victim advocates find hard to believe.
By contrast, the same three cities used in comparison to New England's second-largest city show much less change in the number of forcible rapes from one year to the next.
There is outcry from many law enforcement agencies across the country about the FBI's definition of rape and how it does not account for many forms of the crime, therefore causing an underreporting in FBI rape statistics.
“As standard practice, we are reviewing this specific department statistic and the data behind it in greater depth due to the year-to-year variance,” Worcester Police Chief Gary J. Gemme said in a statement. “We are including within our detailed review the possibility that the FBI's definition of this category may have contributed to this variance as well. We will report our follow-up findings to the FBI per all standard protocols.”
The number of rapes reported in 2010 doesn't reflect the real statistic for the city of Worcester. Rape victim advocates here say they are providing services to many more people than that.
“I dream of the day it could be that,” said Kim L. Dawkins, executive director of Worcester-based Pathways for Change, formerly the Rape Crisis Center of Central Massachusetts. “One of the main points to make is that unfortunately statistics are distorted, and it does not help when we are the ones on the ground doing the work and know the reality.”
From 2006 through 2010, under the FBI's Uniform Crime Report, Springfield reported an average of 113 rapes a year, while rape numbers reported to the FBI in Hartford and Providence averaged more than 50 per year over the same period. Worcester, the largest of the four cities, is the only one with a precipitous decline in forcible rape numbers over the past five years.
“The definition used by the FBI is so narrow that most forcible rapes will not end up being reported using that definition, so I think that's part of it,” Ms. Dawkins said. “The definition is so subjective that figures can be expected to fluctuate based on, not the number of assaults, but the interpretation of those classifying those assaults.”
Toni K. Troop, director of communication for Jane Doe Inc., said there are other variables as well. Many victims don't come forward for myriad reasons ranging from shame, fear of retaliation or unwillingness to seek out police because the victim may be an undocumented person living in the United States, she said.
“Our numbers have continued to increase from 2006 until present,” Ms. Dawkins said, noting her organization does not track forcible rape. “There is no indication of a decline in rapes or sexual assaults in the city.”
Her organization, which offers counseling, legal advocacy, education and many other programs, served almost 600 people throughout Central Massachusetts with individual counseling in fiscal 2011. There were roughly another 200 with medical advocacy and almost 750 people who asked for help through the organization's hot line.
The number of unduplicated clients, new people served, was almost 700, Ms. Dawkins said.
“We see hundreds every year who choose not to report to the police. That in itself becomes problematic,” she said.
Expressing frustration with the Uniform Crime Report numbers, Ms. Dawkins articulated the multitude of problems with the FBI's definition of rape for the data collection.
The Uniform Crime Reporting Program defines forcible rape as “the carnal knowledge of a female forcibly and against her will.”
Attempted rapes by force or threat are also included, but statutory rape without force and other sex offenses are excluded. That means rapes involving oral or anal penetration are excluded. Cases where victims are drugged or under the influence of alcohol also are eliminated.
With a large college population in the city, the rape numbers reported could be skewed because many rapes on college campuses involve drugs or alcohol, Ms. Dawkins said.
There is also an increase in the underreporting by those in the gay, transgender, lesbian and bisexual communities. Since the definition excludes rapes in those groups as well, the statistics can be further distorted.
The antiquated definition, some 80 years old, needs to be changed, Ms. Dawkins said. She knows police departments are frustrated with it as well.
Greg E. Scarbro, unit head for the FBI's Uniform Crime Reporting Program, said the definition will be reviewed on Oct. 18. The vice president and Office of Violence Against Women, a part of the Department of Justice, has directed a review, he said.
Law enforcement agencies will have to be on board with a change, however, since they voluntarily provide the data to the FBI, Mr. Scarbro said.
“Regardless of the statistics, we must remain vigilant,” said Worcester District Attorney Joseph D. Early Jr. “The Worcester Police Department and my office are committed to the investigation and prosecution of those responsible for sexual assaults. One sexual assault is one too many. We work with groups such as Pathways for Change to empower more survivors to come forward and seek justice.”
Ms. Dawkins is hopeful a better definition is created and the correct numbers are reported — not just here, but nationwide. Data is a useful tool, but not if it is inaccurate, she said.
Inaccurate statistics also pose a problem for programs in need of funding.
“I think these kinds of distorted statistics can reduce state and federal funding for these types of programs,” Ms. Dawkins said.