The Case of the Disappearing Sex Crimes Unit

With Rapes on the Rise, There's a Shortage of Resources in the Department Dedicated to Solving Them

JUNE 20, 2007: A 12-year-old girl walks into a north Minneapolis high school saying she had been abducted five days earlier and raped repeatedly by a group of men she didn't know. At one point, she was raped in a black Monte Carlo by a man she can only identify as having a brother people call "Spud."

Sgt. Bernard Martinson, a veteran of the Minneapolis Police Department's Sex Crimes Unit, comes to meet the girl and hear her story. A vaginal swab turns up semen and is sent to the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension for examination.

The DNA matches 26-year-old Harold T. Davis, a convicted felon who had been pulled over by police on June 3 driving a black Monte Carlo. Sgt. Martinson finds Davis, who says his brother "Spud" loaned him a Monte Carlo in the middle of June.

The percentage of reported rapes that lead to arrests in Minneapolis is in steep decline
The percentage of reported rapes that lead to arrests in Minneapolis is in steep decline

According to a police report, Davis denies having sex with the girl and says he has no idea how his semen ended up in her vagina. He's in the Hennepin County jail on $150,000 bail, charged with first-degree criminal sexual conduct. If convicted, he faces up to 30 years in prison.

Conclusions like this one are increasingly rare in Minneapolis. Investigative units measure success by something they call a "clearance rate"—the percentage of reported crimes that lead to an arrest. The 10-year high for the Sex Crimes Unit was 57 percent in 2004. Last year, the rate fell to 26 percent—just 1 percent above a 10-year low.

This year, with data available through August, the unit's clearance rate is 12 percent.

Translation: For roughly nine out of every ten rapes reported to the police, there is a victim waiting to hear word of an arrest.

Meanwhile, the number of reported rapes in Minneapolis has been rising steadily—from 362 in 2002 to 453 last year—even as the number of reported rapes nationwide continues a decades-long decline.

Why rapes are going up is a mystery, but why they are not getting solved is not: The Sex Crimes Unit of the Minneapolis Police Department has seen striking cuts to its human resources. The unit has gone from ten investigators in 2002 to just four today, and two of the investigators are relatively new to the job.

Mike Schlitz, former president of the Minnesota Sex Crimes Investigators Association and a longtime sex crimes investigator in Duluth, calls the cuts "a nightmare."

The work of the Sex Crimes Unit is daunting and hardly limited to rape cases. The unit's four investigators deal with peeping toms, flashers, stalkers, and pedophiles. Then there are the registered sex offenders: The Sex Crimes Unit keeps tabs on more than 1,300 of them.

These four investigators are "the cream of the crop" says Lt. Mike Sauro, who ran the unit from 2001 to 2003, "but the burnout factor is going to hit. I've seen it already." When that happens, he says, "Cases start to slip through the cracks."

When Schlitz was working sex crimes in Duluth, his unit faced its own dramatic cuts. The result, he says, was easy to quantify: "If you have 40 percent of the investigators, you're going to get about 40 percent of the work done. It makes you shudder to think of the cases that aren't being worked."

A diminished investigative capacity has meant fewer arrests, which means fewer cases are being bumped to the prosecutor.

"This isn't CSI, where everything gets solved by the end of the show," says Hennepin County Deputy Attorney Pat Diamond, who adds that the quality of the investigations he's seeing is as good as ever—there are just fewer of them.

In 2004, the Sex Crimes Unit submitted 178 cases of sexual assault where adults were the victims. In 2005, the number dropped to 139. Last year, it dropped again, to 128. Meanwhile, say staff at the Hennepin County prosecutor's office, the numbers in suburban jurisdictions have held steady or increased.

For people who work with survivors of sexual violence, there is an added layer of failure in these numbers.

"For all kinds of social and community reasons, it is very rare for a victim to come forward and report a sexual assault," says Donna Dunn, executive director of the Minnesota Coalition Against Sexual Abuse. "What I see this meaning is, on those rare instances that someone says, 'I'm going to report this,' the system is not able to respond."

* * * * *

SEPTEMBER 18, 2007: Terrence Harrell stops by an acquaintance's house, where he is introduced to her 16-year-old niece. That night, the girl's aunt is away and she's alone in the apartment with her boyfriend. Harrell calls and asks if he can come by and "kick it" with her. She declines.

A little later the boyfriend leaves and the girl is preparing for a bath. There's a knock on the door. She opens it, expecting her boyfriend has returned. It's Harrell.

According to a police report, Harrell forces his way inside and pushes her to the ground. He holds her down, pulls her pants to her ankles, and rapes her. When he hears the slamming of the building's security door, he jumps up. "You're lucky I didn't leave any bruises," he tells her. Then he's gone.

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