New Worry on Police Blotters: Rise in Rapes

The dramatic decline in violent crime that cities are experiencing from coast to coast has one stubborn exception - rape.

In many cities, the number of rapes reported in 1996 stayed the same or even increased at a time when murders dropped by as much as 30 percent. The troubling statistics are forcing police and social-service agencies to think about about new ways to curb the problem.

While no one knows for sure what's behind the trend, one theory is that police efforts designed to cut the homicide rate - community policing, holding precinct captains accountable for crime in their areas, and cracking down on nonviolent crimes such as prostitution and graffiti - are not the kinds of measures that would help to reduce the incidence of rape. Another is that convicted rapists serve relatively short prison sentences, yet have one of the highest repeat-offender rates.

Whatever the explanation, police departments from Dallas to Detroit say they are aware of the numbers and are trying to identify a strategy that will lower the incidence of rape. "Any time you see an increase, it's troubling," says Boston police Commissioner Paul Evans.

Because education is the key to combatting rape, say experts, local police may find themselves working more closely with a wider array of community organizations that distribute information on sexual assault, teach self-defense, and educate girls and boys on healthy attitudes toward the opposite sex. In Miami, where reported rapes declined 11 percent, police credit the drop to such efforts by local groups.

Criminologists and rape experts explain that statistics tell just part of the story. In fact, a more comprehensive Justice Department study of crime victims shows that rape declined in 1995. But experts agree that the newly released 1996 statistics are troubling - and could be the first sign of a future upswing in rapes. At a glance:

* Boston's homicide rate dropped by 30 percent in 1996, yet the number of reported rapes increased by 13 percent.

* Houston's homicide rate declined 16 percent, while its rape rate jumped 17 percent.

* In Detroit, homicides fell 17 percent while rape rose 11 percent.

* Seattle's homicide rate was 23 percent lower than in 1995, but the rate of rape fell by only 2 percent.

* New York City's murder rate was down by 17 percent last year, but its rape rate was cut by only 4 percent.

The crime of rape is difficult to quantify because it often goes unreported, many note. Victims' willingness to report rapes may be affected by high-profile court cases, media coverage of rape, or a particular law-enforcement agency's aggressiveness in arresting and prosecuting rapists.

BUT that may not explain the recent statistical uptick. "I'm inclined to think that we may have reached a plateau where we may not be getting year-to-year changes over factors affecting reporting," says David Finkelhor, who studies rape statistics as co-director of the Family Research Laboratory at the University of New Hampshire.

Police patrols cannot easily prevent rape because it is a crime that occurs mainly inside homes or offices, not in dark alleys, as is the public perception. "What people don't realize is that 70 to 80 percent of rapes are acquaintance rapes," says Linda Fairstein, head of the sex crimes unit of the New York City district attorney's office. "Police presence has nothing to do with acquaintance rape." What police departments can do, she says, is establish a speakers' bureau, as the NYPD has done, to correct myths and teach people how to protect themselves against rape.

The 1996 jump in reported rape is troubling because it follows two years of federal funding increases for rape and domestic-violence education, experts say. The answer, says Casey Jordan at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, is sentencing. As many as 85 percent of rapists repeat their crime, and the average time served for convicted felons in New York state is three years. "I think you're seeing rapists get out early and continue to rape," she says.

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