Unsolved rape data mystery

Misinformation, a threat and a phantom report mark Sheriff’s Department’s attempts to explain why only 4 percent of rapes have been solved since 2016

The largest law enforcement agency in Sacramento County can’t explain why its ability to arrest suspected rapists plummeted to a 50-year low in 2016—and hasn’t recovered.

The Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department, which polices the unincorporated county as well as the city of Rancho Cordova, only cleared 3 percent of the 168 rapes reported to the agency in 2016. According to recently updated figures from the California Department of Justice, the department’s clearance rate improved slightly last year, to eight arrests in 167 reported rapes, or 4.8 percent.

Through the first four months of this year, there hasn’t been much of a rebound. In response to a public records request filed by SN&R, the department’s legal affairs bureau says 49 sexual assaults have been investigated through April 30, resulting in three arrests.

The FBI defines a clearance as when a reported crime results in at least one person being arrested, charged with committing the offense and turned over to the superior court for prosecution. The FBI also allows for clearances through “exceptional means,” which happens when an offender has been identified and located but not yet arrested due to circumstances outside of the agency’s control.

SN&R received a response to its records request on June 26, but delayed reporting on the findings after department officials requested time to schedule an interview with an investigations commander who could put them in context. That resulted in a bizarre series of exchanges in which the commander provided false information to SN&R and the department’s public information officer threatened to provide a purportedly more detailed report to a rival media outlet if this newspaper published its findings before the report was completed.

But no report was ever produced and sheriff’s officials ended up backtracking on their promises to provide exculpatory information, leaving a hard truth: Rape survivors who turn to the agency for help are among the least likely in California to get traditional legal justice.

This wasn’t supposed to be a gotcha story.

I sent the Sheriff’s Department a public records request for updated rape stats back in April. I had submitted this same request to other law enforcement agencies in the region, as part of an attempt to track how reported rapes move through the criminal justice system. I asked three basic questions: How many rapes are reported to the agencies? How many result in rape kits being collected? And how many rapes are cleared through an arrest and charges filed against at least one perpetrator?

When the Sheriff’s Department provided its response two months later, on June 26, the answers were bleak; hundreds of documented sexual assaults reported, most resulting in a rape kit being collected, only a few ending in an arrest.

A couple weeks after getting these records, I forwarded them to a department spokesman and asked if he could contextualize the numbers for me, make sure I wasn’t missing anything important. Sgt. Shaun Hampton called the following day and asked if I could wait a week on reporting the stats, so he could arrange a conference call with the head of their investigations unit, who was on vacation.

Sure, I said.

When the conference call happened July 19, Hampton and Lt. Todd Henry, commander of the special investigations bureau, acknowledged that they were still pulling this ball of yarn apart.

Henry did caution against comparing the crime reporting data of other agencies, since he couldn’t speak to how strictly those agencies comply with guidelines under the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting Program, which is the national clearinghouse for crime and arrest data.

“It’s a voluntary system and so there’s no quality control,” he said. “Some agencies may be stricter than others.”

Troubling as it may be to hear that a law enforcement official can’t vouch for the reporting accuracy of other law enforcement agencies, the argument didn’t explain why the Sheriff’s Department’s rape arrests fell sharply below its own historical average. Prior to 2016, the department’s clearance rate hovered between the low teens and low 20s, which already isn’t great. But why the record drop in 2016—and why hadn’t it recovered?

It soon became clear that Henry didn’t have the answers. He and Hampton said they were working on a more comprehensive report that would detail all the different ways investigators cleared rape cases that weren’t being counted by state or federal databases. For instance, Henry said, the department doesn’t get any credit for solving rapes that were reported more than a year prior.

That didn’t make sense to me. I knew that law enforcement agencies did receive credit for clearing old murders. That’s why, some years, agencies reported clearance rates of more than 100 percent: because along with solving the homicides that happened that year, they broke open a couple of cold cases.

That’s right, Henry said, but it wasn’t the same with rapes.

It seemed weird, but what did I know? I explained to Henry and Hampton that I couldn’t promise to hold the story another week—this was their moment to explain what was missing, I reminded them—but could always update the story if this new report warranted it. They said they understood and we hung up.

Then, as part of the general fact-checking process a reporter goes through, I tried to figure out if what Henry told me about solving old rapes not being counted was true and, if so, why. I spoke to an official at the California Department of Justice on background who contradicted Henry’s assertion. The DOJ collects monthly statistical reports from individual law enforcement agencies that it forwards to the FBI, and says that both crimes and clearances are counted toward the year they’re reported. The official sent me a link to an FBI webpage that spelled out its definition of clearance explicitly: Solving old crimes counted.

I emailed Hampton three times requesting clarification for the untrue statement that the department wasn’t receiving credit for clearing old cases. After the third email, which included a reminder about my deadline, Hampton called back.

The conversation began polite, but I think we both became a little frustrated. I didn’t like feeling like I was being misled, even accidentally, and Hampton didn’t like feeling like his department’s integrity was being challenged. When I asked him why the newspaper was given incorrect information that would have put the department in a better light, Hampton responded that he hadn’t spoken to the commander since the conference call.

“I know nothing about that,” he said.

Hampton implored me to wait for the new report. He said he had seen some preliminary numbers and that they would show the department in a more favorable light. I asked him why I should trust that when I wasn’t getting an answer to what I felt was a reasonable question. He cut me off.

“This conversation is over,” he said. “Publish what you’re going to publish and we’ll give it to The Bee.”

Somehow the conversation continued. I conveyed that I neither appreciated nor cared that he was threatening my exclusive; I just wanted clean stats. He said the in-the-works report would provide them. I specifically asked if the report would show that the department had, in fact, made more arrests than previously shown and explain what changed prior to 2016. He said yes to both.

“The numbers are going to be significantly different” than the original report the department produced, Hampton said. “You’ve actually exposed an error in our system. You’ve uncovered a problem for us.”

No report was ever produced.

A week later, Henry phoned and broke the news. Apparently, there was little desire to expend staff resources on deconstructing a report-writing system that was in the process of being phased out. He also said it was important to realize that detectives aren’t thinking about the FBI’s annual United Crime Reporting Program, or UCR, when they’re working cases and writing their reports.

Henry acknowledged providing inacurate information about old rape clearances not being counted in the department’s favor.

“Apparently that’s incorrect,” Henry said. “I’m trying to wrap my ahead around this because I’m not a records person.”

His mea culpa seemed genuine.

Henry said department officials and IT staff spent weeks trying to figure out what may be behind the department’s arrest woes, and found one possibility: an issue with how officers are identifying cases in which a rape survivor declined to participate in the investigation.

The FBI allows for these cases to be entered as “exceptional clearances,” and not count against agencies as unsolved crimes, Henry said. He said he believes officers and investigators have been tagging these cases as “pending,” leaving them on the books as unsolved. There is no investigative reason for officers to do this, Henry explained, since any exceptionally cleared case can be reopened if new information comes to light.

“For whatever reason we had this directive,” he said. “Exceptionals are not being sent to UCR.”

Henry wasn’t able to identify from where this directive originated or say if it was made prior to 2016, when the staggering drop-off occurred. Henry couldn’t even say if a change in how rape cases are routed through the internal system is actually the reason clearances decreased, because he would have to review each pending rape case individually to see which ones should have been classified as cleared through exceptional measures.

“It’s almost like an onion,” he said. “So I can’t give you hard data.”

Like many sexual assault investigators, Henry zeroed in on a common misconception that rapes are most often perpetrated by strangers. While assaults like that do occur, the vast majority of these crimes are committed by known perpetrators, such as friends, family members or authority figures. That can make it more difficult to convince survivors to participate in a grueling, slow-marching criminal justice process.

“Often it’s someone they know and someone they trusted,” Henry noted. Getting cooperation from survivors “is always a tough component. And we have to work really hard to build that trust. When you throw that emotional component on top of that, it makes it even more so.”

But a lack of victim participation doesn’t appear to be the issue, based on figures reviewed by SN&R.

The vast majority of rape survivors who reported their attacks to the Sheriff’s Department consented to forensic exams, signaling their desire to have their rapists identified and arrested. The so-called rape kits collect biological fluids, hairs, genetic traces or other signs of trauma left on the survivors’ bodies and are sent to the county crime lab for analysis. In 2016 and 2017, more than 77 percent of purported victims agreed to have their bodies probed for any evidence that could identify their attackers. Through the first four months of this year, that participation rate fell to 43 percent of rape survivors.

Henry said he doubts the “pending” directive alone can explain the drastic drop in solved rapes, and was at a loss to point to other factors.

“Nothing I can put a finger on,” he said. “The report-writing glitch alone, I don’t see it being responsible.”

About that, I believed him.