Philadelphia's police rape squad has become a national model for its cooperation with women's advocacy groups to provide better treatment of sexual assault victims, a human-rights group said in a report released Thursday.
In Washington, by contrast, many women have experienced a wide range of obstacles when they tried to report rapes, the nonprofit Human Rights Watch said. The report compared the police handling of sexual assaults there with how police investigated cases in several other cities.
The report's author, Sara Darehshori, said many victims in Washington "fear that their cases will not be taken seriously and that police will not believe them."
Human Rights Watch said its review found Washington police failed to investigate at least 170 reports of attacks between October 2008 and September 2011.
"The crux of the problem lies . . . in a failure by the police to respond with sufficient seriousness and sensitivity to sexual assault complaints," the report said.
Washington police did not respond to the report.
Human Rights Watch chose Washington as a test city for its review of sexual assault cases because it reported unusually low numbers of rapes in the FBI's national surveys on crime, the organization said.
Washington police have reported about half as many rapes as Philadelphia over the last decade, on a per capita basis, FBI records show. During that period, however, the cities reported similar rates of other violent crimes.
Many of the Washington problems that the report cited were similar to those documented in Philadelphia in the late 1990s in a series of Inquirer articles.
Philadelphia Police Commissioner Charles H. Ramsey, who served as Washington's chief of police before the period of the report, in recent years has become a national advocate of improving police treatment of rape victims.
In 2010, testifying before a U.S. Senate subcommittee, Ramsey explained how Philadelphia in 1999 reformed its rape squad in response to The Inquirer's reports on abuses.
He noted that each year since 1999, the Women's Law Project and other local advocacy groups randomly have reviewed 350 to 400 police investigations of sexual assault.
Ramsey, who did not respond to requests for comment on the Human Rights Watch report, said the outside reviews had dramatically improved the treatment of victims.
Human Rights Watch said that as a result of the Philadelphia reforms, the number of rapes reported to police had significantly increased -- a sign that a higher level of reported rapes is not in itself bad news.
The organization, which regularly reports on human rights abuses around the world, said Washington "should create an independent mechanism unit to monitor police department response to sexual assault complaints."
To see the Human Rights Watch report, go to http://www.hrw.org/sites/default/files/reports/improvingSAInvest_0.pdf
Copyright 2013 - The Philadelphia Inquirer
McClatchy-Tribune News Service