This may be the #MeToo era, but here in Virginia, the vast majority of rape cases are still unsolved, and the perpetrators remain unpunished.
In the #MeToo era, survivors of sexual assault are feeling more empowered to come forward with their stories. Despite the social movement, though, sexual assaults and rapes have the lowest clearance rates of all “crimes against persons” in Virginia.
In 2018, for example, fewer than 20 percent of all rape cases in the commonwealth were cleared by arrest, according to an analysis of Virginia State Police data. In contrast, kidnapping had a clearance rate of almost 75 percent.
The numbers don’t surprise Kate McCord, an associate director of the Virginia Sexual and Domestic Violence Action Alliance. She said there are multiple potential reasons for low clearance rates in sexual assaults.
Sometimes, McCord said, police keep cases open for future DNA evidence. Other reasons, she said, include inadequate police training and lack of resources.
One factor, McCord said, is the misconception that sexual assault has a higher rate of false reporting than other crimes.
“The pervasiveness that people who report sexual assaults are not to be believed is still an issue, so that could be contributing to the problem. There are a lot of different factors that could all be kind of interplaying to make this dynamic happen,” McCord said.
Virginia had similar numbers of rape and kidnapping cases last year, according to Virginia Crime Online, a database posted by the Virginia State Police. There were 1,879 reported rapes and 1,546 reported kidnappings.
However, the two crimes had very different clearance rates — the percentage of offenses in which police arrest a suspect:
- 73 percent of the kidnapping cases were cleared by arrest. In 2 percent of the cases, the victim refused to cooperate, and in another 2 percent, prosecutors decided not to pursue the case.
- Just 19 percent of rape cases were cleared by arrest. In 10 percent of the cases, the victim refused to cooperate, and in another 13 percent, prosecutors decided not to pursue the case.
McCord said some rape survivors might refuse to cooperate with authorities because of their relationship to the perpetrator.
McCord also said that “victim refused to cooperate” is a subjective reason to drop an investigation and that in some instances, police may be using this as an excuse.
“When you think about the concept of failure to cooperate, that could be a really subjective judgment call,” McCord said.
McCord used the Netflix series Unbelievable as an example of how survivors of sexual assault can be deemed uncooperative. Unbelievable is a drama based on a true story of a sexual assault survivor who was deemed uncooperative and who eventually sued the city of Lynnwood, Washington, after connecting investigations found evidence of her assault.
The Virginia State Police compile data on sex offenses other than rapes. In 2018, there were:
- 2,831 cases of “forcible fondling”; 21 percent of them were cleared by arrest.
- 531 cases of “sexual assault with an object”; 25 percent of them were cleared.
- 623 cases of “forcible sodomy”; 28 percent of them were cleared.
- 130 cases of statutory rape; 39 percent of them were cleared.
Overall, of the 5,994 sex-related offenses were reported to police in Virginia last year, 1,309 cases — or 22 percent — were cleared by arrest.
The clearance rate for all “crimes against persons” was 45 percent. For instance, of the 8,776 aggravated assaults, 57 percent were cleared. So were 59 percent of the 393 cases of murder and nonnegligent manslaughter, and 47 percent of the 65,261 simple assaults.
Not only are the clearance rates for sex-related offenses low, but many of those crimes go unreported, according to advocates for rape survivors.
The Virginia Sexual Assault and Domestic Violence Action Alliance reported that its hotline last year received 10,017 calls regarding sexual assault.
The combination of the relationship between the survivor and the attacker and low clearance rates for sexual assault can be the perfect storm to keep a survivor from reporting an attack to police.
“When you’re thinking about a survivor who just wants (accountability) but may not want for the person who harmed them to go to jail or prison, then they’re not going to choose to report to a system … where they don’t feel like they’re going to be believed anyway,” McCord said.
Despite low clearance rates, McCord sees a “hopeful trend” of police departments learning about trauma-informed investigation and response.
The International Association Chiefs of Police states that trauma-informed sexual assault investigation training “provides law enforcement and multi-disciplinary community partners with information on the neurobiology of trauma and investigative strategies to respond to sexual assault crimes in a victim centered, trauma informed manner.”
Local police departments had a range of clearance rates for rape cases in 2018.
Among localities with at least 10 rapes, Washington County and the city of Waynesboro had the highest clearance rates at 40 percent. Fairfax County’s clearance rate was similar to the statewide average at 18 percent. Of the county’s 131 reported rapes, 23 were cleared by arrest.
In contrast, Fauquier and Hanover counties cleared only 6 percent of their reported rapes. The Richmond Police Department cleared only two of its 40 rape reports in 2018 — a clearance rate of 5 percent. Suffolk City had a slightly lower rate than Richmond, 4.55 percent, clearing one of 22 rape cases.
Because of the underreporting and low clearance rates for rape, law professor Donald Dripps argued in a recent issue of the William & Mary Law Review that rape should be a federal crime.
Dripps wrote that states and localities aren’t doing enough to solve rape cases. He said making rape a federal offense would focus federal resources on the issue.
Dripps, who teaches at the School of Law at the University of San Diego, wrote that the low clearance rates in rape cases are especially concerning in light of the emergence of DNA testing, searchable law-enforcement databases and other technology.
“As solving rape cases became less difficult, the clearance rate should have gone up,” Dripps stated.
Written by Anna Madigan, Capital News Service. Top Image via Unbelievable/Netflix