In 2016, a BuzzFeed News investigation found the Scottsdale Police Department had one of the highest rates of unfounded rape cases in the country. New FBI data obtained by Phoenix New Times shows the department is still classifying an unusually high percentage of rapes as unfounded, defined by the FBI as false or baseless.
Scottsdale police classified 46 percent of rape reports between 2009 and 2014 as unfounded, BuzzFeed found, meaning the Scottsdale Police Department considered nearly half of all reported rapes to be false or not meet the definition of rape.
After the BuzzFeed investigation, a local news outlet spoke with Scottsdale's assistant chief Scott Popp, who said the percentage was high because cases were categorized incorrectly and that "some of the cases labeled unfounded should have been marked as inactive." Popp said the department had reviewed its rape cases and addressed the miscategorization issue.
Yet, FBI data from 2014 to 2017 shows that the department is still designating rapes as unfounded at a rate much higher than the national average, and higher than that of any other similarly sized city in Maricopa County.
In 2017, Scottsdale police classified 22.6 percent of rapes reported to the department as unfounded (30 out of 133 total reported rapes), the FBI data shows. On average, the department classified 24.8 percent of rapes as unfounded during the four year-period between the beginning of 2014 and the end of 2017.
The national average is 7 percent, and experts who study sexual assault say the actual prevalence of false reports is between 2 and 8 percent.
Meanwhile, the Phoenix Police Department, the largest police department in Maricopa County, "unfounded" 41 of the total 1,183 rapes reported in 2017 (3.5 percent). Mesa listed seven out of 259 (2.8 percent) as unfounded. Glendale didn't classify any of its 97 reported rapes as unfounded, according to the FBI data; nor did Gilbert or Tempe.
High rates of unfounded rape often indicate there may be a problem with the way police officers are responding to rape victims and investigating rape, advocates say.
"When you see outliers from data like this that are significant, that makes me think that it's probably more of a cultural and belief issue that translates into training and policies and practices that get ingrained in the whole way the police are functioning that is not in the best interest of public safety," said Kristen Houser, chief public affairs officer for the National Sexual Violence Resource Center.
In the early 1980s, the Philadelphia Police Department's practice of classifying nearly half of all rape complaints as unfounded led to a FBI audit of the department's handling of sex crime cases. In recent years, Department of Justice probes in Missoula, Montana, and Baltimore found that police routinely disregarded victims, failed to investigate cases, and neglected to test rape kits or gather evidence.
In one case unearthed by DOJ investigators in Baltimore, a city prosecutor emailed a police officer to say that a rape victim "seems like a conniving little whore."
"Lmao!" the officer wrote back. "I feel the same."
Asked what might account for the department's unusually high rate of unfounded rape cases, Sergeant Ben Holster, public information officer for the Scottsdale Police Department, said the department did not have enough time to respond and would provide a response at a later date.
"The Scottsdale Police Department stands ready to respond to these questions and we are happy to work with you on this story. We received your request on Friday near the end of the business day. You then gave us a deadline of Monday morning for our answers. It’s impossible for us to accurately and thoroughly respond to your questions over the weekend," Holster wrote in a statement emailed to New Times.
"Additionally, we do not have the exact data from which you based your questions. If you would like to provide that data, that would better enable us to accurately respond to your request. We will have a response regarding these questions sometime next week," Holster said.
However, the data on unfounded rapes referenced in this story is the Scottsdale Police Department's own data. Police departments throughout the country submit crime data to the FBI as part of the Uniform Crime Report. New Times shared the data obtained from the FBI with the Scottsdale Police Department after receiving Holster's statement, though SPD has yet to respond.
The Scottsdale Police Department also classifies more rapes as unfounded than any other crime.
Any crime can be unfounded. Even a murder investigation may be closed as unfounded if investigators determine that the crime actually fits the definition of, say, a manslaughter case instead. In 2017, when SPD classified 22.6 percent of rapes as unfounded, they classified 2 percent of burglaries, 2 percent of robberies, 3 percent of larcenies, and 5 percent of assaults as unfounded.
After rape, the crime that was most often determined to be unfounded in Scottsdale was motor vehicle theft (10 percent in 2017). It is likely the unfounded number for motor vehicle thefts is higher than that of other crimes because people sometimes fraudulently report motor vehicles as stolen for insurance purposes — as one Yuma County Sheriff's Deputy did in 2015.
"These numbers are certainly troubling and disappointing," said Tasha Menaker, co-CEO of the Arizona Coalition to End Sexual and Domestic Violence. "Research has demonstrated that the vast majority of sexual assaults are not reported to the police (between 70 and 90 percent), largely because victims are worried they will be blamed or disbelieved."
"Scottsdale Police Department should take a close look at their practices and do a thorough assessment to determine why so many of their sexual assault cases are being unfounded, as more training may be needed for investigators," Menaker said. "With so many cases categorized or miscategorized as unfounded or inactive, victims are certainly not getting the justice they deserve."
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