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A Philadelphia Story - Part I

Samantha Richards (not her real name) was only seven on January 12, 1996, when 29-year-old Jasper Washington pulled her into his car, drove a few miles, raped her, and pushed her out onto the snow-covered ground. Doctors found dried blood and semen in the girl's underwear. "The man laid me down and pulled my pants down," she told investigators. Samantha's family knew her attacker—he had once dated her aunt. In the years after the rape, Samantha saw him several times walking in her North Philadelphia neighborhood. "How is she going to feel safe if he's walking past the house?" Samantha's mother asked a Philadelphia Inquirer reporter in 1999.

It was not until four years after the attack that Samantha's rapist was convicted in a Philadelphia courtroom. That was too long, says a unique alliance of women's advocacy groups and the Philadelphia Police Department, who have begun organizing to make the prosecution of rapists a top priority.

Samantha's mother had given a sex crimes officer Washington's full name and address in 1996. The investigator, a member of the Special Victims Unit (SVU), never followed up for questioning. And when the young victim failed to pick the right man out of a photo lineup, the case was coded "2701" or "investigation of person," a noncriminal designation that is supposed to indicate the need for further investigation. But for years, cases labeled 2701 went into limbo. Since 2701 cases go unreported to the FBI, the code helped improve Philadelphia crime statistics by omitting many reported rapes and sexual offenses from the official record.

Richards' case might have remained unresolved if the Philadelphia Inquirer hadn't begun a groundbreaking investigative series in late 1999. The newspaper found, among other facts, that one third of the SVU's caseload had been labeled 2701 and dropped from active investigation. Pressure to provide rosy stats, officers burned out by too many cases, and a police culture that ignored sexism may have led to the unit's failure to adequately investigate rapes.

After Samantha Richards' story appeared in the Inquirer, the police reopened the case. The series also attracted the attention of Carol Tracy, executive director of the Philadelphia-based Women's Law Project, who says, "It became clear to us that significant advocacy needed to be done." She asked Philadelphia's city council to get involved in order to bring the matter into a more public venue. That December, a city council hearing was held. Among the groups to appear was Women Organized Against Rape (WOAR), which had compiled a file of complaints about police insensitivity to rape. WOAR also charged that many rape victims' trauma had been intensified by insensitivity, particularly on the part of the SVU.

Several months after the hearing, Police Commissioner John Timoney extended an unprecedented invitation to women's and children's advocacy groups in Philadelphia, asking that they form a committee to oversee a review of recent "unfounded" cases. (When a case is declared unfounded, it means the police have determined that a crime has not occurred.) When asked why he decided to invite this public oversight, Timoney said, "We wanted to restore public confidence. I thought getting an outside group who would report to the public would help that."

Women's advocates were impressed. "When the action was taken by Timoney, there was a clamoring for info," says Jan Baily, communications director for the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape, near Harrisburg. "I fielded calls from rape crisis centers as far away as the state of Washington."

According to the Inquirer, at the second city council hearing in June 2000, Timoney testified that nearly 1,000 cases labeled 2701 (out of a total of 2,000) had already been reviewed. The review-largely of cases from 1995 and 1996-showed that 346 cases were rapes and 469 were other sexual offenses, ranging from mo

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