Each week, the Atlanta Police Department publishes a spreadsheet detailing citywide crime statistics and compares them to stats from the previous week, month, and year. For the most part, the increases and decreases in the number of crimes committed year-to-year are subtle. For instance, there's been a 13-percent decrease in the number of murders, a 4-percent decrease in the number of aggravated assaults, and a 7-percent decrease in the number of burglaries. Overall, crime is down 1 percent. But, as of mid-November, there was one glaring exception to the modest fluctuations in the number of crimes committed in 2010 versus the number committed in 2011: rape. With just a month left in the year, there's been a 79-percent upswing in the number of reported rapes this year, 134 versus 75 the same time last year.
Police say they're "aware of" and "concerned about" what would appear to be a pretty dramatic increase in the number of rape cases. Deputy Chief Calvin Moss, who oversees the Criminal Investigations Division, puts the statistic into perspective by explaining last year's numbers were low, and as little as a decade ago, the numbers were way worse.
"As recently as 2001 we had 367 reported rapes," Moss says. "Since '01, there's been an overwhelmingly downward trend in reported rapes. Even though we're up this year ... we're not looking at the 300 or better rapes."
Still, while there's been a reduction in the number of most other crimes and only modest increase in others, it remains unclear what factor would explain such a huge fluctuation in the number of rape cases. Phyllis Miller, executive director of the DeKalb County Rape Crisis Center, hypothesizes — and hopes — that what Atlanta is seeing is not necessarily a surge in actual rapes, but in the number of victims reporting them.
The APD has four different ways in which it classifies rape cases. Three of those classifications — "domestic rape," in which a spouse or live-in partner is the assailant; "acquaintance rape," in which a victim and her attacker know one another and were spending time together consensually; or "just met," meaning the attacker isn't well-known, but isn't a stranger per se — encompass situations in which there's some familiarity or relationship between the victim and the attacker. The vast majority of rapes are committed by someone the victim knows, so in many cases victims are reluctant report their attackers.
While the number of rapes might fluctuate, the nature of rape in Atlanta doesn't appear to have changed, according to police. Eighty-four percent of the rapes reported to the APD this year were cases in which the victims knew their assailant. Offering what's perhaps minor comfort, Deputy Chief Moss says, "What we're not seeing is an increase in young woman being snatched into the bushes and raped."
DeKalb's Miller says the increase in clients her facility has seen over the past four years "seems to be because more people are reporting."
"Clearly, there's an increase in more people reporting," she says. "Is there more rape? I don't know."
Miller suggests that if the same is true in Atlanta and more women are reporting their assaults, the reason could be socioeconomic. State law provides that rape victims "have the right to have a forensic medical examination regardless of whether the victim ... cooperates with law enforcement" and "shall not be required to pay, directly or indirectly, for the cost of a forensic medical examination."
Sonya Cruel, social work manager at Grady Memorial Hospital's Rape Crisis Center, stresses that rape victims never have to pay for exams or STD testing — as long as the victim comes forward within the 72-hour window during which evidence of an attack could still be gathered.
"It doesn't matter whether or not they want to file a police report," Cruel says. "That has nothing to do with it. If someone comes in and they've been assaulted and they want a forensic exam, that's free."
Grady will also offer to hold onto a rape kit in case a woman who's decided not to report her rape changes her mind in the future.
Cruel, however, disagrees with Miller's theory that the increase in reported rapes is due to more victims being compelled to report their attacks. After reviewing her center's intake numbers for the past six months, Cruel says: "[The numbers] fluctuate. But I don't think there's any indication there are less assaults happening [versus more victims reporting their attacks]."
This year, the APD's Special Victims Unit has solved 61 percent of the rapes that took place in 2011, well above the national average, which hovers around 44 percent. According to Deputy Chief Moss, the APD continues to focus on capturing fugitives because a "vast majority" of rape suspects are repeat violent offenders or have some prior criminal record.
"Obviously we're aware and concerned [about the increase in reported rapes]," Moss repeats. "People need to remain aware of their surroundings and make wise social choices. This is not to point the finger at the victim. That's not what we're saying. We just want to remind everyone that there are predators out there who will take advantage of unsuspecting people."