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(Megan Harris/WESA)

On paper, the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police appears to be effective at investigating rape cases. In 2017, the bureau reported it closed 58 percent of its rape cases, according to the city’s response to a WESA Right To Know request. The 2017 national average was 36.5 percent, according to national crime-reporting statistics kept by the FBI.

But the city’s success rate comes, at least in part, from the fact that local police deemed 31 percent of the cases it investigated in 2017 as “unfounded.” The FBI uses the term “unfounded” to describe cases that, through an investigation, are found to be false or baseless.

By comparison, the arrest rate for Pittsburgh police was 23 percent. According to data made available through an investigation by ProPublica, in 2016 the average arrest rate for police departments serving populations of 300,000 or more, was 21 percent.  

While Pittsburgh’s arrest rate is comparable to those in other cities, advocates still worry about the high number of cases city police deem “unfounded.”

“That is high,” said Women’s Law Center attorney Sue Frietsche of the unfounded rate. “These numbers are a red flag. They show that something needs to be looked at more closely.”

“This is a rate that is clearly an outlier as far as the data that I’ve seen,” said Cassia Spohn, the director of the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice at Arizona State University. She has researched unfounded rates and said, “Either the Pittsburgh police are not trained adequately on the meaning of unfounding or they’re encouraged to unfound cases that aren’t in fact false or baseless.”

Police spokesman Chris Togneri said city police take all rape allegations seriously.

“Based on our research, it appears [Pittsburgh’s statistics] are higher than some and lower than some,” he said. “It’s difficult for us to compare our stats to other agencies, as we can’t speak for them.”

In Pittsburgh, a case may be deemed unfounded if the accuser later recants and says the rape didn’t occur, “or when an investigation proves that a crime did not occur,” wrote Togneri in an email. He said “it is uncommon for a complainant to recant,” but added that “a case can be unfounded if it is initially reported in one jurisdiction but later discovered that it occurred in another jurisdiction. In that instance, the case would be unfounded in the incorrect jurisdiction and active/open in the correct jurisdiction. Law enforcement agencies communicate with each other to make sure that the crime is reported and investigated in the correct jurisdiction.”

Togneri said the department did not have a breakdown on how many cases were unfounded due to jurisdiction issues. But he noted that more than half of cases assigned to the department’s sex-assault unit are reported by phone through ChildLine, a Pennsylvania abuse hotline.

“Detectives investigate every ChildLine tip,” he wrote. “It’s important to note that, considering the tips are always third-party, and that mandatory reporters often – and rightfully – err on the side of caution and report everything, some of these cases end up unfounded once police investigate.”

How unfounded cases change the math

It is difficult to establish a nationwide average for deeming cases unfounded. That’s partly because the FBI stopped tracking the number of unfounded cases in the 1990s. At that time, roughly 10 percent of cases were deemed unfounded nationwide.

But a 2016 Buzzfeed News investigation identified Pittsburgh as categorizing some 30 percent of cases as unfounded – among the nation’s highest rates. And a 2018 investigation by ProPublica, Reveal and Newsy shows many cities comparable to Pittsburgh with much lower unfounded rates. In 2016, Denver, Colo. labeled as unfounded 2.3 percent of the cases it investigated, according to records requested from the department. Charlotte, North Carolina had a rate of 13.2 percent, and Kansas City unfounded 3.9 percent of investigated cases.

Baltimore has drawn considerable controversy over the designation. The Buzzfeed story found that Baltimore County police department officers often weren’t investigating cases at all, and designated 34 percent of cases as unfounded. The Baltimore Sun reported in 2010 that the city police department classified cases as “unfounded” at a higher rate than any other city of its size.

Some observers say using the “unfounded” label can help to enhance a police department’s reputation. That’s because when departments calculate their success at closing cases, they remove “unfounded” cases from the equation.

After a case has been investigated, officers seek to “clear” – or close – a case. The number of cases closed (through arrest or otherwise) divided by the total number of cases investigated is the department’s clearance rate.

Departments often tout their clearance rates to show they are handling their caseload. “It allows them to push out their chests and say, ‘we have done well,'” said Carnegie Mellon University criminology professor Alfred Blumstein. “It’s certainly one important measure of the performance of the police in one of their prime missions, which is solving crimes.”

But deeming cases unfounded “reduces the denominator,” explained Blumstein. With fewer cases in the mix, “you increase the clearance rate, and so it looks like a success where it might be a distortion.”

In 2017, Pittsburgh police investigated 149 alleged rapes, but because 46 were unfounded, it based its clearance rate on a total 103 cases. If all of the unfounded cases had been included in the total, the clearance rate would have been 40 percent, 18 percentage points lower.

Leaders at the victim advocacy group Pittsburgh Action Against Rape were not available to discuss the experience of victims who report to the Pittsburgh police.

“[Pittsburgh Police] have some very, very good people,” said District Attorney Stephen Zappala. “For the most part, I think they’ve done a good job.”

The elusiveness of crime statistics isn’t a new phenomenon. Even within the same department there can be discrepancies.

In Pittsburgh, the city’s initial response WESA’S Right-To-Know request reported that 40 percent of rape cases were deemed unfounded. After WESA followed up on those figures, the department said the statistics provided were off due to errors in an internal document, and reexamined the 2017 caseload to provide accurate numbers.

Another way to close cases

Even when a case is closed, there can be questions about how far law enforcement was willing to take a case.

Many cases close with an arrest, but departments can also close cases by “exceptional means.” The FBI defines “exceptional means” as circumstances in which the officer knows who and where the suspect is, but can’t make the arrest due to a reason beyond the officer’s control. Such circumstances could arise when, for example, the suspect is dead, already in prison or being prosecuted for another crime.

In Pittsburgh, the department reported clearing 22 percent of the cases it investigated in 2017 by exceptional means.

Togneri said the department can use the “exceptional means” when officers, “after consulting with the [District Attorney’s] Office are told the case lacks prosecutorial merit.”

ProPublica found the clearance by exceptional means to be higher some jurisdictions. In Kansas, the Wichita Police Department closed 63 percent of its cases in 2016 by exceptional means.

For Sue Frietsche of the Women’s Law Project, Pittsburgh’s rape statistics demand closer examination, in the form of public hearings or the formation of a permanent third-party review board. A third-party review panel was formed in Philadelphia nearly two decades ago to annually examine the department’s handling of rape cases, and is still in effect today, according to Frietsche.

“We could do so much better – an immediate audit of this whole are would be a good first step,” she said. “We owe it to survivors of sexual assault to look behind these numbers and figure out what’s going on.”