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Better Data Entry Could Help Stop Rapists Like Darren Sharper Before They Assault More Women

Why didn’t police move more quickly to arrest Darren Sharper, the former New Orleans Saints safety who has reached a plea agreement to settle rape charges involving at least nine women in four states? Part of the answer, according to a ProPublica and New Orleans Advocate investigation into that question, may involve a less familiar part of police work: data entry.

Police departments are encouraged to use a Federal Bureau of Investigation database, the Violent Criminal Apprehension Program, or ViCAP, to share information about violent crimes. The trouble is that police departments aren’t using it to share information about sexual assaults. “Of 79,770 rapes reported to police in 2013, only 240 cases were entered into the database — 0.3 percent,” according to the ProPublica story.

The FBI says 2013 wasn’t an outlier year, but typical of the low volume of sexual assault cases that police departments enter into ViCAP. In fact, one-third of the sexual assaults entered into the database in 2013 happened outside the U.S., meaning only 160 U.S. cases were added to the database that year.1 On average, just 97 agencies entered just 241 sexual assaults in the U.S. per year during the five-year period ending in 2014.2 The average annual number of sexual assaults reported to law-enforcement agencies from 2010 to 2013, the latest full-year data available, was roughly 83,700.3

There are at least 18,000 law-enforcement agencies in the U.S. that report crime data to the FBI. The number that receive sexual assault reports each year is smaller, but surely more than 97.

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Kenneth R. Gross Jr., chief division counsel for the FBI’s Critical Incident Response Group, said the violent-crime database is “not comprehensive” because law-enforcement agencies aren’t required to contribute to the ViCAP database and because the database is meant primarily for certain types of sexual assault: serial rape and rape by strangers. He added: “Other types of sexual assault cases, such as ‘date rape,’ would not be considered under the criteria for our system.”

However, part of the point of entering what look like isolated cases into the system is to find out if they are part of a larger crime pattern committed across state lines, as the ProPublica/Advocate investigation into Sharper shows. Two women told Miami Beach police that Sharper sexually assaulted them in 2011, but he wasn’t arrested until 2014, by Los Angeles police. In between, women reported him for sexual assault and attempted sexual assault to police in Louisiana, Arizona, Nevada and California.

T. Christian Miller, one of the authors of the Sharper article, said sex-crimes detectives interviewed for the story had mixed reactions to the database. “They ranged from some who were in favor of the system and had used it, to literally sex-crimes detectives who had never heard of the database,” Miller said.

Some detectives had heard of ViCAP but didn’t want to contribute to it. “One complaint we heard was, police don’t want to be data-entry clerks,” Miller said. Many departments still log cases manually — they’re analog departments in the digital age.

Just how much ViCAP’s holes contributed to the delay in arresting Sharper isn’t clear. “The case files show nothing about ViCAP search or case entry,” Ryan Gabrielson, one of the authors of the ProPublica article, said in an email. “In cases where agencies provided statements, like Tempe [in Arizona], they acknowledged not checking for cases elsewhere, through ViCAP or otherwise.”

There were plenty of other factors contributing to the failure to arrest Sharper sooner, many of them sadly familiar in investigations of sexual assault, particularly involving star athletes. Police departments and prosecutors failed to fully investigate allegations. Some police officers didn’t try to contact Sharper, or failed to test rape kits, or gave witnesses the impression they didn’t take allegations seriously.

Nonetheless, the broader failure by law-enforcement agencies to use a data tool to stop serial rapists is a sad irony. It perpetuates an obstacle to police work that inspired the creation of that very data tool in the first place.

ViCAP was conceived by a Los Angeles police officer, Pierce Brooks. He had the idea in the late 1970s when he was visiting local libraries to read newspapers in a search for murders resembling ones he was investigating. “He thought, ‘What if this information was contained in a searchable system?’ ” according to an FBI history of the system published in 2010. Brooks suggested the idea to the Department of Justice, and in 1985, ViCAP came online — with Brooks as program manager. He died in 1998.

“Online” was a relative concept 30 years ago. ViCAP started on a mainframe computer. The first investigators who used the system mailed in their requests. It finally came online in 2008, allowing for Web-based searches a decade after the launch of Google.

It’s hard to tell just how much people are searching it today and what they’re finding. In its 2010 history, the FBI said: “For privacy reasons, we can’t discuss operational successes, but we can tell you there have been an untold number of leads generated for cases that might have otherwise gone cold.” In other words, the FBI isn’t telling.

Media reports suggest that some police officers continue to use the database for investigations of missing persons and homicide. The FBI also mentioned ViCAP specifically in its 2015 fiscal year budget request, though not in its 2016 request. ViCAP’s average annual budget was $1 million between 2010 and 2014, according to Gross. It was just $718,931 last year, down 41 percent from 2011. The FBI’s overall budget in fiscal year 2014 was more than $8 billion.

Improving collaboration and data sharing among law-enforcement agencies has been a major federal goal since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. William Webster, who directed the FBI when it launched ViCAP and made counterterrorism a priority for the agency in the 1980s, now sits on a council that advises the secretary of Homeland Security. Webster, 91, said in a telephone interview Wednesday that while he didn’t remember specifics about the motivation behind ViCAP and its use, he continues to be a big believer in targeted sharing of data among agencies. “In today’s world, it’s increasingly important that the various elements of law enforcement have a means of staying in touch with each other,” Webster said.

Webster mentioned two ways to optimize data sharing among law-enforcement agencies: restricting access to those who need it and making sure that those who enter information get something back. “It isn’t a matter of just broadcasting everything to everybody who wants to listen,” Webster said. He added that law-enforcement agencies generally are willing to share data “as long as they feel it’s not all take and no give.”

Footnotes

  1. That’s an even lower percentage of all reported sexual assaults that year than ProPublica reported — just 0.2 percent, instead of 0.3 percent.

  2. Some cases are entered after the year in which the assaults allegedly happened.

  3. That’s the count according to what the FBI calls its “legacy” definition of rape. The agency switched to a new definition in 2013. The numbers used here and in the following table are based on the “legacy” definition.

Carl Bialik was FiveThirtyEight’s lead writer for news.

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