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Rape Case Clearance Rates are at an All-time Low

— January 8, 2019

Police are having a hard time clearing rape cases despite the popularity of the #MeToo movement. Many variables make these cases especially complex and difficult to close.

Police departments across the nation are becoming less and less likely to successfully close rape investigations despite the influence of the popular #MeToo movement.  The “clearance rate” for rape cases fell last year to its lowest point since the 1960s, according to FBI data.  Experts suggest that number reflects the fact that not enough resources are being allocated to investigating sexual assault at a time when more victims are trusting police to advocate for them and condemn assailants.

“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 only 32 percent of rape investigations across the country in 2017.  This is despite the latest advances in DNA evidence.

“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.  He added, “It’s almost as if forensics and DNA has let us down.”

Rape Case Clearance Rates are at an All-time Low
Photo by Plush Design Studio on Unsplash

Unfortunately, all too often, assault investigations lack reliable witnesses and physical evidence.  Researchers believe only a third of rapes are reported at all, and they are commonly reported well after they occur.  What’s more, there are many tough-to-prove charges filed against boyfriends, husbands, or other intimate partners.  Victims also change their mind about pressing charges from time to time and stop cooperating with the investigation or the suspect dies or is incarcerated in another state.

Some police departments have begun “suspending” sexual assault cases, which allows for a case to remain open indefinitely, rather than rushing to close them.  This way, there could someday be an arrest made in even the most complicated cases.

“This may be an indicator of some positive things,” Kim Lonsway, research director at End Violence Against Women International.

In Detroit, for example, police investigated 664 reported rapes in 2017 but made just 44 arrests.  Another fifteen cases were closed for other reasons.  That would give Detroit a clearance rate of only 8.9 percent.

Sam Gaspardo said that when she reported in 2011 that she had been sexually assaulted, police in Woodbury, Minnesota, lacked a sense of urgency.  However, investigators cited issues with the case from the start, including the victim’s delay in reporting (she did so after a full year) and inability to recall the precise date of the alleged crime.

“To me, it felt like it was invalidated,” Gaspardo said. “I was just completely dismissed.”

Woodbury Police Cmdr. Steve Wills ultimately acknowledged Gaspardo’s case was a “a system failure.”  He said of the department’s inability to adequately respond, “Obviously, we own that.”

Ultimately, officers concluded they could not prove Gaspardo’s alleged attacker had forced her to have sex.  Wills added, however, that the department would have been in a much better position to adequately investigate had the incident had been reported in a timely manner.

“It can make a person so angry,” Gaspardo said. “Are women supposed to start wearing body cameras when they’re alone in a room with somebody?”


Despite #MeToo, rape cases still confound police

Crime clearance rate in the United States in 2017, by type

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