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Sylvester J. Schieber Headshot

Ignoring Sexual Assaults Can Be Deadly

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On May 7, 1998, my daughter, Shannon, a 23-year-old student at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, was raped and killed by a man who broke into her apartment at 2 a.m. Her killer previously had raped at least four other women before Shannon, all students living alone within a six-block radius of Shannon's apartment, and all in early morning attacks.

However, the police failed to realize they had a serial rapist on their hands because detectives had classified two of the cases as "non-criminal offenses" and failed to investigate. According to the police statements, they did not believe the victims or found the victim's memory of events unclear.
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A report about the Metropolitan Police Department's response to sexual assault cases in the District of Columbia identified similar issues. On December 12, the public will have its first chance to voice its opinions on proposed legislation to improve the MPD's response to sexual assaults at a hearing of the DC Council.

The proposed DC legislation was prompted by a January Human Rights Watch investigation that concluded that the MPD failed to properly investigate scores of sexual abuse cases between 2008 and 2011 and often mistreated survivors who sought police assistance. A June report, conducted at the Council's request by attorneys at Crowell & Moring, disputed Human Rights Watch's methodology but echoed their recommendations for transparency and external oversight.

Information provided by the MPD to Human Rights Watch revealed that in dozens of cases, the police classified sexual assault complaints as non-criminal incidents recorded for so-called "office information" purposes only and closed at the time of the report.

That police officials would ignore legitimate complaints of sexual assaults is offensive on its face. More important, it poses a major public safety risk that I learned about through personal tragedy.

At the time my daughter was killed, the Philadelphia police would not consider a reported sexual assault as part of a serial set of attacks unless it was linked to two other reported crimes. With two of the four attacks by Shannon's killer not classified as crimes, the police department did not warn the community or even its own police officers that a serial rapist was attacking young women.

Shannon's case led to a public outcry and an examination of police practice in Philadelphia. Only after Philadelphia Inquirer reporters uncovered and reported the previous rapes in front-page stories did the police admit that the two victims had made legitimate complaints of being sexually assaulted and link their DNA evidence to Shannon's case.

Initially, the Police Commissioner, John Timoney, downplayed the misclassification of cases, chalking the lapses up to bad training or occasional "sloppiness." Fortunately, the Philadelphia City Council, rather than letting the matter drop, pressured Timoney to review cases going back five years. Ultimately, 2,000 sexual assault cases classified as non-crimes were audited. As a result, 700 of the cases were reclassified as rapes and another 500 as alternative forms of felony assault. In other words, there was sufficient evidence in the police files to suggest a serious crime had been committed in fully 60 percent of the cases.

The local outcry was loud and effective. The police department implemented new training, changed its handling of reported crimes and now has local victim advocacy groups annually review the coding and investigation of sexual assault cases. There is a broad understanding that the citizens of Philadelphia are safer today because of these changes in the police department's handling of sex crimes. Both the police and the advocacy groups say the process has resulted in better investigations and improved treatment of victims.

In Washington, the police commissioner, Cathy Lanier, blasted the Human Rights Watch report as flawed and touted recent changes to the way police handle sexual assault complaints. But reforms to police policy, however welcome, are only part of the solution.

What's needed is the kind external oversight that is restoring confidence in Philadelphia's Police Department. The MPD is as opposed to such oversight as the Philadelphia police were initially. The Philadelphia police have learned, however, that oversight is not a problem if they classify cases properly and treat victims reporting crimes with the respect and appreciation they deserve.

Had Shannon known what was happening in her neighborhood, she probably would have thought the man who followed her home from a movie two nights before she was attacked was not just someone looking for a date. The two officers who responded to a neighbor's 911 call in response to Shannon's scream for help most likely would not have refused to break down her door to rescue her if they knew of the other attacks. Shannon might well be alive today if the police had investigated those earlier cases.

The DC Council ought to be bold and insist on changes like those adopted in Philadelphia to ensure that sex crimes are properly handled. It would make Washington a safer place for all women and children. The Council should not wait for the sort of situation that Shannon Schieber faced to adopt these changes.