September 15, 2014

Rape Report Surge Reflects New Definition, Other Factors

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While recently released crime statistics from the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation show a large spike in the number of reported rapes over the last two years, the actual increase might not be as dramatic, according to police.

The number of rape cases reported to police between 2011 and 2013 rose 21 percent, according to the OSBI’s 2013 Uniform Crime Report, which tracks several types of crime statistics across the state. All other forms of violent crime fell during that period.

The Crime Report data further showed that between 2011 and 2013, the number of reported rapes in Oklahoma City spiked dramatically – increasing by 61 percent – while Tulsa recorded a 40 percent increase during that time.

However, the reported spikes may be attributable in part to increased involvement by advocacy groups and health professionals, less social stigma attached to reporting sexual assaults and changes in the way the FBI collects its data, police said.

“Part of it, we simply can’t answer. Part of it, we would like to think is because of better reporting,” said Sgt. Mark Mears, who oversees the Tulsa Police Department’s Sex Crimes unit.

Rape and sexual assaults often are not reported by the victims. The cases that do get reported often are difficult to investigate and prosecute, because victims sometimes fail to report the crimes immediately after they occurred or decide to forgo the difficult task of testifying about them in court, said Capt. Dexter Nelson, public information officer for the Oklahoma City Police Department.

“Victims sometimes put the blame on themselves, since most (perpetrators) are acquaintances, somebody they know,” Nelson said. “They think, ‘Nobody’s going to believe me.’”

One factor that may make it easier for individuals to report sexual assaults is a law that went into effect 2009 that allowed sexual assault reports to be made by health care workers from hospitals, Nelson said.

Under the law, health care professionals treating a sexual assault victims are required to report the case to police only if the victim requests it. If the victim is less than 18 years old or is an incapacitated adult, attending health care workers are required to report the case to police regardless of whether the victim requests it.

Another factor behind the dramatic increases could involve how the data has been collected, Mears said.

Beginning in 2012, the FBI announced it was expanding its definition of rape in regard to the statistics it collected from state law enforcement agencies such as the OSBI.

While one system of reporting the numbers used by several states already collected data under an expanded definition of rape, Oklahoma was not one of the states using that system, according to the FBI.

The FBI had for years asked that law enforcement agencies send it statistics that fit the agency’s definition of rape: “the carnal knowledge of a female forcibly and against her will.”

In 2012, the FBI announced it was expanding that definition.

“Prior to that, it had a very, very limited definition of rape that hadn’t been updated since sometime around 1928,” Mears said.

The FBI’s current definition expands its definition of victims to include men and individuals with a temporary or permanent mental, physical or age-related incapacity. The new definition also includes cases involving non-consensual oral or anal intercourse, or rape by instrumentation.

Though the old definition precluded many cases from being reported to the FBI as rape, many state legislatures and law enforcement agencies already had expanded their definition of rape over the years and had begun investigating and prosecuting crimes falling outside the FBI data-collection definition, Mears said.

It was just in reporting the statistics to the FBI that the old definition was used, which could have made it appear as if fewer rapes were being reported to law enforcement than actually was the case, he said.

Tulsa Police did not see the spike shown in the Uniform Crime Report Data reflected in the actual number of sexual assault reports it records, Mears said.

“The numbers have basically been consistent,” Mears said.

While the data collection methods might have had an effect on the last few years’ numbers, for at least a decade there has been a larger movement among advocacy group to empower and help sexual assault victims, in part by making it easier to report the crimes committed against them, Mears said.

“There’s a lot more advocacy in reporting,” Mears said. “We want to see that.”

Clifton Adcock can be reached at cadcock@oklahomawatch.org.