Police representatives consistently point to crime statistics to indicate crime is declining, despite anecdotal experiences of residents indicating otherwise. At this week’s Trinidad Neighborhood Association meeting, an MPD official noted that, according to crime stats, crime was down in our neighborhood. However, a 196-page report released today by Human Rights Wach shows MPD simply doesn’t investigate a lot of rape cases, and that the mayor’s office (in 2009) and Chief of Police were both notified of police malfeasance.
If police refuse to take a report or misclassify it as a less serious crime, the police knowingly provide inaccurate crime stats that falsely report a reduction in crime. Neighbors say police many times are unwilling to take a report for a small crime (minor theft, robbery), or try to dissuade them from making reports. It’s tough to prove, as the alleged activity wouldn’t leave a paper trail.
Many residents have experienced officers refusing to take a report or investigate incidents, or misclassifying a robbery as a simple “theft”. Poor police response is so common that we acknowledge this in the police section of our Welcome to Trinidad guide.
But what about for more serious offenses, like rape? Surely those are investigated, right? Wrong.
A report released today by Human Rights Watch says that MPD either does not take a report for or mishandles “many” sexual assault cases, which is the term DC uses for rape:
…in many sexual assault cases, the police did not file incident reports, which are required to proceed with an investigation, or misclassified serious sexual assaults as lesser or other crimes. Human Rights Watch also found that the police presented cases to prosecutors for warrants that were so inadequately investigated that prosecutors had little choice but to refuse them and that procedural formalities were used to close cases with only minimal investigation.
So, as we’ve seen anecdotally with other crimes, the Human Rights Watch report independently confirms MPD dissaudes people from reporting rapes or falsely reports them as lesser crimes, which falesly unerreports the District’s crime statistics. Unfortunately, anecdotal reports from neighbors are all that we can go on, as MPD does not release detailed crime statistics or raw incident data for public review. So, if data’s manipulated- say, a robbery you reported was reclassified as a theft overnight- there’s no way to know.
With MPD refusing to allow public oversight or access to raw crime data, it’s impossible to know if the crime stats are provided by MPD are accurate. In the case of Human Rights Watch’s report, they were only able to review investigative files as the result of a lawsuit settlement:
The review of investigative files was part of a settlement agreement resulting from a lawsuit Human Rights Watch brought after the MPD failed to produce documents requested under the Freedom of Information Act.
Human Rights Watch reviewed dates of all sexual assault reports made at Washington Hospital Center, where sexual assault victims are sent for forensic examinations, and compared them to sexual assault cases opened by the police department between October 2008 and September 2011. More than 200 cases, or over 40 percent of cases reviewed, appear never to have been documented or properly investigated.
If MPD doesn’t document or properly investigate 40% of rape cases, what are the chances that less serious crimes such as robbery, assault, and theft are reported? And, if residents are dissuaded by police so often, they’ll stop even trying to report incidents to the police, feeling that it’s a fruitless effort or may just take things into their owns hands. Ask your older neighbors about this, and they’ll regail you with hours of stories.
In fact, the Human Rights Wach report specifically indicates that Police Chief Cathy Lanier was told by survivors themselves of the problem:
“By failing to classify the crime committed against me as an attempted rape or sexual assault, by ignoring my account of the story, you condemn me to a life where I mistrust the police, abandon any faith I possessed in the criminal justice system, and you have caused me more victimization than the actual perpetrator of the crime committed against me. Moreover, you fail the community you have sworn to protect….”
– Letter to MPD Chief Cathy Lanier from Eleanor G., survivor of a 2011 attempted sexual assault, October 4, 2011
The report goes on to quote other victims’ account, which all echo similar concerns: MPD officers wouldn’t take reports for rape or attempted rape, dissuaded victims, and mistreated victims. In addition to the above account sent to the Chief of Police, other victims’ statements were sent to the Mayor’s office and the Office of Police Complaints.
The public’s trust in its police department is fundamental to cooperation between citizens, police, and elected officials. Breaking that public trust is unconscionable, and the nation’s capital deserves better. And, with such a high number of cases mishandled by police, it suggests a severe, pervasive oversight and management deficiency that cannot be corrected with simple guidance or a Council hearing.
Prior to DC home rule in 1973, some members of Congress worried about the District’s mayor selecting the police chief and suggested that the FBI Director appoint the DC police chief. Back then, they feared, in part, that a chief of police appointed by the local mayor “may result in misuse or nonuse of the police power in a manner adverse to the interests of the city.”
Perhaps that concern isn’t too far off.