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Rape is up in the District. Closure rates are down. Top MPD officials won’t talk about why.

The day after Christmas 1998, 4 a.m. Two men in a red compact car abduct a 36-year-old uniformed Wells Fargo security guard from the 1500 block of Morris Road SE as she travels to work. She is severely beaten and sexually assaulted. One man wears a ski mask. The other brandishes a gun.

New Year’s Eve, 8 p.m. Same block. A 16-year-old girl is snatched off the street by two men, taken to the same location, and raped. Police soon reveal that another girl, 14 years old, was abducted from the 1500 block of Morris Road and raped on Nov. 30.

Fear ripples through Southeast. Some women organize self-defense classes. Ward 8 activist and former D.C. Council candidate Sandra Seegars organizes a press conference to demand increased police attention and more information on the crimes. “The commander over here was saying that the commander of the sex division downtown didn’t get the information to him [about the rapes’ pattern]. He had to read it in the newspaper. I didn’t like that answer, even though it was true,” recalls Seegars.

Shortly thereafter, Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) Chief Charles Ramsey disbands the Sex Offense Branch—dispersing its 23 detectives to the seven police districts. The stated goal of the change is keeping in better touch with affected communities.

“They were already talking about [decentralization]. This pushed ’em along quicker,” says Seegars today. “I thought it was good, because [rape victims] could talk to the detectives right there. They don’t have to call downtown for someone.

“Rapes and murder, I think, are the worst two crimes,” observes Seegars. “If you’re dead, you’re dead. If you’re raped, you still got to think about it.”

Save for a brief upward blip in 1995, most categories of major crime in the District have seen a consistent drop since 1993. The number of murders has dropped from 454 in 1993 to 237 in 2000. Aggravated assaults have been cut in half, and larcenies and thefts plummeted from 31,466 to 19,803 in the same seven-year period.

But in recent years, according to the MPD’s Citywide Crime Statistics, rape has proved a stubborn exception to this trend. Sexual assaults did decline along with other major crimes from 1993 (324 rapes and attempted rapes) through 1998 (190). In the past two years, however, the number of rapes has risen again, and last year’s preliminary total stood—once again—at 324. (Revised citywide figures prepared for the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report put last year’s number of rapes and attempted rapes at 251—a 30 percent increase over just three years earlier.)

Meanwhile, the number of rapists being caught and prosecuted has dwindled. The MPD’s case closure rate for rape in 2000 was 27 percent, down from 44 percent in 1999. That’s a far cry from 1993’s success rate of closing 62.3 percent of cases, much closer to the closure rates of 1995 through 1997, when police caught suspects in fewer than one quarter of rape investigations.

Shortly after taking the MPD helm in April 1998, Ramsey began to institute a “community policing” program similar to those that had enjoyed success in Chicago and New York. One of its more controversial aspects was the “decentralization” of the central homicide unit and the reassignment of its detectives to individual districts as “violent-crime” investigators who would be responsible for rape cases, as well.

When Ramsey disbanded the MPD’s Sex Offense Branch in March 1999, there was considerably less fanfare. The goals of the change—closer relations between detectives and communities, more rapid responses to patterns of sex crime—were clear. But some MPD detectives, prosecutors, and women’s advocates insist that the change has led to other problems. They argue that dismantling the Sex Offense Branch has led to a marked decline in coordination between police districts and also between the District and other local jurisdictions.

“If a rapist is working in two districts, that information doesn’t get shared as quickly as it could have been,” says Robert Spagnoletti, chief of the Sex Offense and Domestic Violence Section at the U.S. Attorney’s Office. “There were a couple of cases where it wasn’t until the information was brought to us that we saw that there was a pattern.”

At present, communication between the seven police districts about sex crimes is limited to informal phone calls and meetings between detectives who have personal relationships. “We don’t get anything official about what’s going on across the city,” says Detective Randy Brooks, a violent-crime investigator in the 2nd District who served on the old sex-crimes unit. Brooks has been investigating sex crimes since 1988.

Nor are reports easily shared between the District, Maryland, and Northern Virginia. “We don’t really meet,” explains Brooks. When the Sex Offense Branch was operational, he continues, a single detective “would go to other jurisdictions—P.G., Montgomery County. Now, we’re supposed to try to send a detective from each district, but that’s hard, because a lot of times you can’t make it.” Prince George’s and Montgomery Counties both have centralized sex-crime units.

“It’s hard to track sex crimes the way we’re doing them now,” observes Brooks. “Say you had a serial rapist. I’m in the 2nd District, so I don’t really know what the 4th District is doing, let alone what’s happening in 7D. If you had a serial rapist working across the city, you wouldn’t know.”

Most sex crimes are not committed by serial rapists who attack strangers but by someone who is known to the victim. Yet serial rapists inspire particularly intense fear, and the District has had its share of them. Over the past two years, the U.S. Attorney’s Office has successfully prosecuted several men responsible for more than one attack.

Derrick Orlando May, 26, was convicted of sexually assaulting four young women in Southeast D.C. in separate incidents during the spring and early summer of 2000, having offered them rides and then taken them to an I-295 underpass, where they were raped. He was caught after a victim revisiting the scene with a police detective saw him driving through the underpass.

Roosevelt Singleton Jr., a 41-year-old parolee, was sentenced to life in prison without parole for the September 1999 rape of a woman in her Kalorama Road apartment. It was his third conviction for sexual assault. He was first convicted of rape in 1977; he was undergoing post-release sex-offender counseling for a 1987 rape when he struck again. Another case against Singleton, for a second 1999 rape, was not prosecuted after he was sentenced to life in prison, sparing the victim the difficulty of trial.

Derrick A. Brown, a 32-year-old MPD officer, was apprehended and convicted for a 1998 rape of a 14-year-old girl and a 1999 assault on an adult woman. Both attacks took place after the victims were observed by Brown trying to buy marijuana. According to testimony, Brown, who was on duty and in uniform both times, told the women to come with him, then assaulted them.

Even when the old Sex Offense Branch existed—and had access to citywide data—a single individual could be responsible for multiple sex crimes without being identified as a serial rapist. In mid-1999, 38-year-old Leon Dundas of Jacksonville, Fla., was linked by DNA evidence gathered after his death to eight rapes in Southeast D.C. in 1997 and 1998. His victims ranged in age from 14 to 21. Upon learning of Dundas’ role in the crimes, 7th District Cmdr. Winston Robinson Jr. told the Washington Post that the department had not suspected that a single individual was responsible for those particular attacks.

Changes in the District’s DNA-collection-and-use policy, requested by Ramsey and soon to be codified by the D.C. Council, may make rapes by assailants unknown to the victim easier to solve. Currently, corrections officials don’t routinely collect DNA samples from convicted felons in Washington, and police do not feed DNA evidence collected during sex-assault investigations into the FBI’s two national offenders databases to look for what detectives call a “cold hit.” At present, investigators examine DNA evidence only after police have identified a suspect whose DNA they want to compare with specific crime evidence.

Crime statistics are not the only indication that rape is an increasing menace in the District, and even the MPD argues that official numbers tell only part of the story.

“I don’t get too hung up about the Uniform Crime Report rate,” says Caroline Nichol, who oversees the MPD’s Violence Against Women Division, which distributes funds and collects data as mandated by the federal Violence Against Women Act. “I’m more concerned with what we’re doing internally to make sure that every allegation gets the attention it deserves.”

Nichol has analyzed data that show an increase in reported sex crimes against adults in 2001, as measured by 911 calls. “We are seeing a 14 percent increase over the first few months of 2001 compared to the same period last year,” she says.

Last year, 1,150 people called 911 to report a sex offense or sexual assault, most of which were in progress or had just occurred. Crimes against juveniles and children are not included in this number, but Susie Cambria, policy director of D.C. Action for Children, an advocacy group, says that there were an additional 412 reports of sex offenses against minors that came to the attention of the MPD’s Youth and Preventive Services Division.

No one knows for sure just why there has been a surge in rape reports, and several MPD officials seemed unaware of the trend until questioned about it. Brooks argues that increased public awareness is a key factor: “It’s probably because more people are reporting now, more aware of sex crimes due to TV and other media.”

High-ranking MPD officials have little to say about the rise in rapes. Cmdr. Joe Griffiths, captain of the Sex Offense Branch in 1998 and early 1999, declined to comment on either the increased number of reports or the impact of decentralization.

“I am deferring all questions on the decentralization of the sex-crimes unit to the chief or assistant executive chief of police. You need to talk to the chief,” said Griffiths.

Ramsey’s office referred all calls to Cmdr. Jack Barrett, chief of detectives. Barrett did not return repeated calls. Neither did Executive Assistant Chief Terrance Gainer.

The hypothesis that heightened awareness has led to the statistical rise strikes victims’ advocates as unlikely. Though several nonprofit groups are in the early stages of organizing efforts to encourage increased reporting of statutory rape and other sex crimes against children, there was no citywide campaign to encourage sex-crime victims—adults or children—to come forward during the previous three years.

Denise Snyder, executive director of the D.C. Rape Crisis Center, argues that “one factor that did happen was the disbanding of the Sex Offense Branch, in 1999. I would think that would have a negative impact on reporting rather than increase reporting. Rather than have a centralized unit of detectives whose exclusive focus is sex crimes, you have detectives who are also investigating other violent crimes. That makes it much more difficult to focus on sexual assault. If a detective has a caseload with a couple of homicides, the detective is going to focus on the homicides.”

Another possible explanation for the rise is the elimination of the “alleged rape” category in reporting such statistics. Police no longer have discretion about whether to fill out an incident or offense report when a woman makes a sexual-assault complaint.

“In the past couple of years, the MPD has eliminated the ‘alleged’ category of crimes, which existed only for sexual assault,” explains Spagnoletti. “Most crimes are labeled either founded or unfounded; for sexual assault, they had created a separate category called ‘alleged.’ They took a report but never did anything about it. It just sort of floated out there.

“Now, it is often the case that we are presented with a case by the police where we’re told, ‘The guy’s name is Ricky,’ and that’s all we have to go on. In such cases, we may empanel a grand jury to try to assist with the investigation,” says Spagnoletti. “The number of cases that we see referred for prosecution since the early ’90s has increased.” Nonetheless, the U.S. Attorney’s Office continues to prosecute about 70 percent of cases sent to it by police—a proportion that has remained constant since 1999—and secures convictions or plea bargains in all but a handful of those cases.

For her part, Nichol sees room for improvement at all levels of law enforcement. “I don’t think the District has a sense of the size of the problem,” she says. CP