Lack of Reliable Sexual Assault Numbers

The mere idea that anyone, including the agencies of our criminal justice system, has a real grasp on how often women are sexually assaulted in our city is nonsense  In fact the real decisions about how many sexual assault complaints end up in the final numbers are significantly impacted by decisions made in the shadows of our criminal justice system.  Discretion within the system greatly impacts the numbers.  Our media mostly ignore important issues altogether or cover them in only the most superficial manner possible.   This blog shall provide a little insight into what we don’t know about our criminal justice system in regards to sexual assault.

First Level:  Office of Emergency Management and Communication (OEMC)

This is the name of the city institution that handles the 911 calls and dispatching of officers to attend to calls for service.  OEMC categorizes every call that comes into them originally.  From my understanding this original code may be changed based on what the responding officer reports once getting to the scene and engaging the individual that called for service.  These numbers should be the clearest and most unfiltered batch of numbers because someone, either a hospital or an individual victim, has called for service to report a sexual assault.  However, this really is not the case in every call because the responding officer can, through their report to OEMC alter how the call is categorized.  This means that the responding officer is the first filter between incidents that come to the attention of the system and the official numbers that are released.

Second Level: Detectives within the Chicago Police Department

CPD Gavel PictureEven when the responding officer writes a report and OEMC records it as a sexual assault it does not mean that the Chicago Police Department (CPD) will process that case accordingly.  In fact, once the case reaches detectives, they have the authority through their discretion to alter how the complaint is categorized.  This final categorization that occurs at the detective level with the CPD determines how the complaint will be counted and released in the CPD’s annual report.  Now, for the most part victims have no idea that the detectives are altering how the system is viewing what happened to them.  How the detectives categorize a complaint directly impacts how the CPD responds and how the complaint proceeds through the remainder of the system.

Now, it might be that the responding officer screwed up and categorized the complaint improperly or it might be that the detectives know that they are not going to pursue felony charges and want to reduce the number of felony sexual assault complaints that are reported in the annual report.   When we as a society allow individuals to make politically important decisions in the shadows expecting anything other than agenda driven results is a mistake.  Are the detectives operating against the public interest, I am not sure we have the evidence at this point to say that; however, this is Chicago so anytime you find secrecy & agenda driven decision making you expect and mostly find the worst.

Third Level:    Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office (SAO)

Below find a list of the numbers that are reported by the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office on a monthly basis, I mean a quarterly basis, hell annual basis.

Black Glass CubeYes, it is a black box.  The fact is that the SAO does not report any numbers regarding their activity.  They do not publish any kind of annual report like the CPD does.  Their activity is shrouded in secrecy.  There is no way to track how many cases come in to the office for approval at felony charges and then how many are accepted.  Without access to information from this agency trying to determine the life course of any single complaint is almost impossible.

This is a simplified example as the full explanation will be the topic of our 2010 report.  Needless to say that communities are being endangered by not being allowed to access the real numbers about how and when sexual assault is happening in their communities.  This denied access allows the media to continue to focus on stranger attacks rather than focusing on the as much as 8 times more likely acquaintance or partner sexual assaults.  We get stupid press conferences by ignorant male officers recommending that women do not go out late drinking.  Of course, this seems to indicate that this is the victim’s fault.  I am sure that was not the intention of the old, white, male officer who gave the press conference in Wicker Park a couple of yeas ago.  He was in the area with 200 other officers who flooded the neighborhood for a press conference.  Once the media packed up and left the area so did the cops.

In reading Mary Mitchell’s Sunday column I was struck by how often I have heard stories that resemble this one from advocates for survivors of sexual assault.  I am not sure how often the system fails survivors but I know we are being denied the access to the information that would allow us to know this.  Is justice out of balance as Mitchell proposes in her column?  My answer is yes.  The fact is the secrecy with which the system operates does not allow us to know exactly how out of whack the system really is.  Discretion within the system is really what is most in need of being captured.

Within the SAO there is a level called felony review.  It is within the power of the  individuals who sit on the felony review board to approve or deny officers the ability to prosecute felony level charges.  There has always been an uneasy relationship between the SAO and the CPD.   Most if not all the scandals involving the CPD, including most notoriously the Burge era, either included willing participation from members within the SAO or deliberate indifference.  The recent scandal involving the Special Operations Section of the CPD is no different.  Now this seeming willingness to participate on some level does not mean that the political interests of the SAO do not rank first among their concerns.  By not releasing any data, citizens and policy makers are not empowered to examine, understand, and if necessary criticize the SAO because they have no information with which to do so.  This needs to change because from Mitchell’s column and what I have been hearing from advocates for survivoros of sexual assault there is plenty of reason to criticize the SAO.

Tracy has nearly two decades of experience researching and working within criminal justice systems. When Tracy began pursuing a career dedicate to system reform, he found that no single organization existed to promote evidence-based discussions among law enforcement agencies and the communities they serve. Recognizing that citizens in Chicago deserved the right to demand transparency in their criminal justice system, Siska established the Chicago Justice Project. He received his Master of Arts degree in Criminal Justice at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

Recommended Articles


FOIA: CPD IUCR & Training Plan

In this Freedom of Information Act request is seeking to obtain the Illinois Uniform Crime Report codes, (IUCR) and obtain a copy of a report

Chicago Justice Podcast

This is our Chicago Justice Podcast that covers crime, violence, and justice issues in Chicago. We will feature deep dives in to justice system data, interview with researchers and justice system reform advocates, as well as evaluations of justice system practices.

Subscribe To CJP's Latest Updates

Sign up today for insider details about our advocacy & litigation campaigns!


You can unsubscribe at any time. We will never sell or share your information.