The numbers are likely familiar by now: according to RAINN, for every 1,000 rapes that occur, only one-third are reported to the police, and of that number, only 57 reports lead to arrest. But a new joint investigation from ProPublica, Newsy, and Reveal shows that even when police departments do investigate rape cases, they routinely inflate the numbers of rape cases they solve, through something called “exceptional clearance.”
From the report:
Across the country, dozens of law enforcement agencies are making it appear as though they have solved a significant share of their rape cases when they simply have closed them, according to an investigation by Newsy, Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting and ProPublica based on data from more than 60 police agencies nationwide.
They are able to declare cases resolved through what’s known as exceptional clearance. Federal guidelines allow police to use the classification when they have enough evidence to make an arrest and know who and where the suspect is, but can’t make an arrest for reasons outside their control.
Although criminal justice experts say the designation is supposed to be used sparingly, our data analysis shows that many departments rely heavily on exceptional clearance, which can make it appear that they are better at solving rape cases than they actually are.
Of the police departments they received records for, the reporters found that in 2016, almost half of the departments “solved” more rape cases by using exceptional clearances than by arresting the alleged rapist. Some of the largest police departments in the country, including those in Baltimore, Oakland, Austin, and Tampa, were especially egregious in their use of exceptional clearances:
The Baltimore County Police Department, for example, reported to the public that it cleared 70 percent of its rape cases in 2016, nearly twice the national average. In reality, the department made arrests about 30 percent of the time, according to its internal data. The rest were exceptionally cleared.
About a dozen departments that provided data had twice as many exceptional clearances as arrests in 2016. To the public, this effectively made it seem as though they had solved three times the number of rapes that they actually had.
For example, the Oakland Police Department in California cleared 60 percent of rapes reported in 2016, according to agency data. For every case they resolved through arrest, Oakland police cleared more than three by exceptional means, data provided by the department shows.
In Hillsborough County, Florida, home to Tampa, the Sheriff’s Office cleared 12 percent of rapes in 2016 by arrest. It cleared more than three times as many by exceptional means.
Police departments will often argue that the low numbers of arrests are due to survivors’ reluctance to work with police. As Austin’s police chief Brian Manley put it, “It’s the unfortunate reality of sexual assault in this country.” According to the ProPublica, Newsy, and Reveal analysis, two-thirds of cleared rape investigations in Austin in 2016 were closed by exceptional clearance.
The case of Marina Conner illustrates how clearing cases in this manner provides the exact opposite of justice to survivors. While a student at the University of Texas at Austin in 2015, she was raped in a parking garage. She reported the rape to the police. Despite police officers finding her alleged rapist—who told them that they had had consensual sex—her case was turned down by the district attorney’s office and no arrest was made. Despite this, the Austin Police Department was able to exceptionally clear her case.
“It sounds like a good thing if you tell someone a case was cleared—it doesn’t sound like I was violently raped and my rapist is still out there,” Conner said. “Makes me feel like I am being silenced, makes me feel like they’re trying to sweep rapes under the rug.”
You can read the rest of the report here.