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Is Stranger Rape the Only “Real Rape” in Los Angeles?

Stranger RapeIn 2012, the U.S. Justice Department funded a research report that revealed some startling attitudes toward the crime of rape in the Los Angeles Police and Sheriff’s Departments.1 The study’s authors examined clearance statistics for sexual assaults in the City and County of Los Angeles, and interviewed several police officers, sheriff’s deputies, detectives, prosecutors, and victims, getting their views on the nature of this crime and how the victim’s own acts play a role in whether the alleged offender gets prosecuted.

A Look at the Numbers

Researchers found that of the 5,031 rapes and attempted rapes reported to the LAPD from 2005 through 2009, 43.4% remained open, and 10.9% were determined to be unfounded. The other 45.7% were cleared, meaning the case had reached a resolution by arrest (12.2%) or through “exceptional means” (33.5%). “Exceptional means” is when an arrest could have been made but the police were unable to do so for some reason outside of the hands of law enforcement, such as the suspect dying before an arrest could be made or the victim not cooperating with the investigation.

During that same timeframe, the LA Sheriff’s Department received 2,269 rape cases, 88.3% of which were cleared either by arrest (33.9%) or by exceptional means (54.4%), 10.6% were ongoing investigations, and 1.1% were determined to be unfounded.

In all, 707 of the 7,300 cases resulted in sentencing, which translates roughly to only one out of every 10 rape allegations resulting in a suspect’s conviction.

The Difficulty of Rape Cases: Myths and Misunderstandings

Why is the conviction rate so low? Part of the problem is the nature of the crime itself. In many cases, the only two witnesses are the alleged victim and the alleged attacker, and it is even more difficult when the incident is between two people in a relationship, such as a boyfriend and girlfriend or a married couple. There may be very little evidence of the crime beyond the victim’s complaint, and the case becomes a battle of he-said-she-said in the courtroom, making it very difficult to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the victim was raped. Many cases are brought to the district attorney for a “pre-arrest evaluation,” which often results in the case being disposed of because of the potential difficulty in proving the case.

Gen 23However, the problem runs deeper than just a lack of evidence. According to the report, many of the cases cleared by “exceptional means” are closed because there is an attitude toward the crime of rape among some officers, deputies, detectives, and prosecutors that only rape by a stranger constitutes “real rape.” Allegations of rape that occur between two people in a relationship or a married couple are thought of as something less than criminal, or even not a crime at all.

Said one deputy district attorney: “I was working in [a Branch] 18 years ago and a judge said that a prostitute cannot be raped. There is still a prevalent attitude that a wife cannot be raped.”2 In California, it is a crime to rape one’s spouse under California Penal Code Section 262.

One alleged victim offered an even more harsh assessment of the status of rape cases in Los Angeles. When asked by researchers for the reason her attacker was not prosecuted, she stated: “The DA‘s office was looking for a slam-dunk and my case wasn‘t a slam-dunk.”3

Another alleged victim, who told police that she had been kidnapped and raped at gunpoint, said the police officer accused her of lying several times and even made her stand up, close her eyes, and count to 30 while she was in the hospital to prove that she was not under the influence of drugs or alcohol.4 Under California Penal Code Section 261, rape is an act of sexual intercourse where consent is not given. This includes when consent cannot be given because a person is incapable of resisting due to intoxication or loss of consciousness.

What Can Be Done?

In the absence of a clear policy in Los Angeles, alleged victims and suspects alike are going to find it difficult to predict what will happen when a rape accusation has been made. If the public does not know where the line between sex and rape is because the police refuse to enforce it with a clear standard, the likely outcome is that many more rape cases that should be prosecuted will never go to trial. A clearer standard needs to be set so that police arrest those who should be arrested, and those who are actually innocent are the ones who are set free.

To that end, researchers suggest several policy changes, including better training for officers and district attorneys, having the district attorney present at the victim’s police interview, and adopting a policy of filing charges not based on whether the case can be proven in court, but rather when the legal elements of rape have been met. It will be interesting to see whether Los Angeles’ law enforcement community is listening to these suggestions.

What do you think about LAPD’s supposed attitude toward rape? Do you think changes in policy will help? Please share your thoughts by leaving a comment below.


1. [Cassia Spohn, Ph.D., and Katharine Tellis, M.S.W., Ph.D., “Policing and Prosecuting Sexual Assault in Los Angeles City and County: A Collaborative Study in Partnership with the Los Angeles Police Department, the Los Angeles County Sheriff‘s Department, and the Los Angeles County District Attorney‘s Office,” February 2012. Study was funded pursuant to a grant from the Department of Justice. Available at https://www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/nij/grants/237582.pdf]
2. [Id., at 373.]
3. [Id., at 114.]
4. [Id., at 115.]

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