Violation of Trust

Why, how we did it

After a rape victim complained about how police mishandled the investigation of her case and the lack of criminal prosecution, we wondered how often this happens.

To find out, we needed to build a database. To obtain the needed information, we drove more than 3,500 miles from courthouse to courthouse across 32 Southern Illinois counties over a period of months.

Sometimes circuit clerks refused to cooperate. Computers failed. There were false starts, sealed files, redacted police reports and dead ends.

We needed to know the exact type of sex crime — rape or sexual abuse — as well as how many crimes were committed, when they occurred, who was charged and what happened to these cases. Annual crime reports give no clue as to how many cases are actually prosecuted.

Some records were available online, others weren’t. The routine that evolved was to convince a courthouse clerk to print a felony manifest, or listing of all felony crimes for a year. To cover 2005-13, this usually involved at least 100 to 200 pages or more per county.

With a manifest in hand, we meticulously scanned each page. Each felony sex crime was highlighted in yellow and the case number listed separately. Then it was back to the courthouse to convince a clerk to pull the actual case files. Some were cooperative. We often were told to make an appointment and come back later.

Eventually we had the needed prosecution data. The next chore was to amass totals for all felony sex crimes reported to police during the nine-year period. Comparing all reported felony sex crimes to those that were prosecuted would give us an overall prosecution rate — the goal of the investigation.

The rapes were relatively easy. They are reported to the FBI’s national crime database, the Uniform Crime Reporting system, which is carried out on a voluntary basis in every state. But rapes are only one type of sex crime. Felony sexual abuse, which often targets children, is not addressed by the program.

To get those numbers, more than 120 local police department were queried. Nearly 100 responded but the data some sent was problematic. Not all of the police departments sorted the numbers between misdemeanor and felony sexual abuse. Some of the data were unusable and had to be discarded. But we were able to confirm 1,712 complaints of felony sexual abuse, or about one in four of all reported felony sex crimes.

As part of the investigation, we obtained more than 1,000 police investigative files under the Illinois Freedom of Information Act. In most cases, police departments were cooperative. But obstacles developed because of the various degrees to which the police department’s censor felt obligated to black out information. Besides the names of victims and witnesses, many departments redacted the age of victims or the names of criminal suspects who were arrested.

In Carbondale, a clerk refused to turn over any of the city’s police investigative files because she said the smell of a redacting pen made her sick and that she didn’t have time to prepare the records. The BND challenged and the attorney general’s office agreed.

Another investigative hurdle involved cases with juvenile suspects. Juvenile records, by law, are closed to the public. This was a problem because rapes reported to the UCR lumped together both adult and juvenile suspects into one overall number.

To make a fair comparison, the total of both adult and juvenile suspect crimes had to be determined. Twelve counties, including St. Clair and Madison, agreed to provide hard numbers for juvenile suspects. But 20 counties refused or wouldn’t respond.

To overcome this, a criminal researcher and professor of criminology at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville proposed a simple solution: Divide the number of known juvenile cases from the counties that provided numbers by the overall number of felony sex crimes for these counties. Using that formula, it was estimated that 6 percent of all felony sex crimes had juvenile suspects.