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Despite #MeToo, rape cases still confound police

NEW YORK — The #MeToo movement is empowering victims of sexual assault to speak up like never before, but what should be a watershed moment for holding assailants accountable has coincided with a troubling trend: Police departments in the United States are becoming less and less likely to successfully close rape investigations.

The so-called ‘‘clearance rate’’ for rape cases fell last year to its lowest point since at least the 1960s, according to FBI data provided to The Associated Press. That nadir may be driven, at least in part, by a greater willingness by police to correctly classify rape cases and leave them open even when there is little hope of solving them.


But experts say it also reflects the fact that not enough resources are being devoted to investigating sexual assault at a time when more victims are entrusting police with their harrowing experiences.

‘‘This is the second-most serious crime in the FBI’s crime index,’’ said Carol Tracy, executive director of the Women’s Law Project in Philadelphia, ‘‘and it simply doesn’t get the necessary resources from police.’’

Police successfully closed just 32 percent of rape investigations nationwide in 2017, according to the data, ranking it second only to robbery as the least-solved violent crime. That statistic is down from about 62 percent in 1964, despite advances such as DNA testing.

The FBI provided the AP with a dataset of rape statistics dating back to the early 1960s — a table that includes more complete data than the snapshot the bureau releases each fall.

The grim report card has prompted debate among criminal justice experts, with some attributing the falling clearance rate to an antiquated approach to investigations.

‘‘You’d figure with all the new technology — and the fact that the overwhelming majority of victims of sexual assault know their attacker — the clearance rates would be a lot higher,’’ said Joseph Giacalone, a former New York City police sergeant who teaches at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice.


‘‘It’s almost as if forensics and DNA has let us down,’’ he said.

Experts agree that sexual assault is one of the most confounding crimes police confront. Many investigations lack corroborating witnesses and physical evidence. A significant chunk of complaints are reported months or years after the fact. Researchers believe only a third of rapes are reported at all.

Historically, some detectives also discouraged women from pursuing tough-to-prove charges against boyfriends, husbands, or close acquaintances. The declining clearance rate could mean that investigators in some places are finally classifying rape investigations properly, said Kim Lonsway, research director at End Violence Against Women International.

Rather than hastily ‘‘clearing’’ certain tough-to-solve cases, she said, some police departments have begun ‘‘suspending’’ them, meaning they remain open indefinitely. That leaves open the possibility there could someday be an arrest.

‘‘This may be an indicator of some positive things,’’ Lonsway said.

The FBI’s clearance numbers provide an incomplete picture of how often rapists are brought to justice. That’s because they also include ‘‘exceptional clearances,’’ where police close an investigation without charging anyone, for reasons beyond the department’s control. That could be because a victim stopped cooperating or the suspect died or is incarcerated in another state, among other reasons.

Many police sex assault units have heavy workloads and insufficient staffing, said Kevin Strom, the director of RTI International’s Center for Policing Research & Investigative Science, a research center based in North Carolina.


‘‘I think that has a major impact in terms of influencing the ability of law enforcement to successfully clear these cases,’’ he said.

The clearance rate in rape cases dropped steadily in the 1960s, plateaued at nearly 50 percent through most of the ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s, then began a steady yearly decline that persisted through last year, according to the statistics collected by the FBI.