LONG BEACH — A newly formed civilian commission designed to investigate complaints of police misconduct has declined its first request: that it look into the Police Department's dismal record of arresting rapists.
The Citizen Police Complaint Commission can investigate specific complaints of misconduct but not broad allegations, according to its chairwoman, Barbara Shoag.
But moved by testimony from two rape victims who complained about how police handled their cases, the commission agreed Wednesday night to recommend that a domestic-violence task force be formed. Commissioners also asked that they be given sensitivity training on rape issues.
The local chapter of the National Organization for Women had asked the commission to examine how rape cases are handled within the department.
Police officials have said they are understaffed and doing their best. Last year, Long Beach police had the worst record of any major city in California for solving serious and violent crimes, including rape. Last year, police failed to make arrests in 74% of reported rapes.
But NOW officials fear that sexism and racism within the department are deterring police from more aggressively investigating rapes, many of which involve minorities and poorer women. They also complain that police have not devoted enough attention to rape cases.
Until recently, the department had two detectives assigned to the sex crime detail and at one point, only one detective, Shoag told the commission.
The department now has five detectives and one sergeant in the detail, according to Lt. Tony Batts, who serves as the liaison to the commission. Batts said in an interview that the department would have "no comment" on its previous staffing.
Batts said the department has no evidence that backs up NOW's contention of racism and sexism. "Until we know that, we can't say we have a problem," Batts said.
Herbert A. Levi, executive director for the commission, said that commissioners could eventually consider the climate in which rape is viewed in the department. But first it must start with a specific complaint, said Levi, a deputy city manager.
"This commission deals with fact-finding," Levi said after the meeting. "There's a lot of misconception as to what this commission can do. We can't be everything to everybody."
Gerrie Schipske, president of the local NOW branch, said she was disappointed that the commission will not pursue her request. But she was pleased that commissioners sided with NOW's second proposal to establish a domestic-violence task force. The task force would work as a liaison between police and those who work with rape victims. The commission forwarded the recommendation to City Manager James C. Hankla.
"We raised awareness here tonight," Schipske said after the meeting. She and officials from the Rape Hotline of Long Beach said they were also pleased that commissioners asked to be trained on rape issues.
"That will make it easier for them when they do have a complaint from a rape victim (alleging police misconduct)," Schipske said.
On Wednesday, the commission also heard from two rape victims who complained about police response. One woman, who now works as a volunteer for the rape hot line, said it took police an hour to respond to her call. She had been kidnaped, raped and robbed at gunpoint.
Another woman said that she disliked the "nonchalant attitude" of the detective assigned to her case. The detective repeatedly failed to return her telephone calls. "It took them months to let me know they had even talked (to the rapist)," the woman told commissioners.
But Julie Dodge, executive director of the Sexual Assault Crisis Agency, which runs the 24-hour hot line, expressed confidence in the detectives assigned to the sex crime detail. She emphasized that the problem is with some patrol officers, whose offensive or unsympathetic remarks can cause women to drop their complaints.
The volunteer who complained about police response time cited as an example a rape case she handled recently. A woman reported her 14-year-old daughter missing, and a woman officer arrived to take the report. But while the officer was there, the girl arrived home. She looked disheveled, had bruises on her neck and gang etchings on her leg. The officer told the mother something to the effect of "look at what your daughter is" and called her "a little whore," according to the volunteer. She then allegedly wrote in her report that the girl had hickeys on her neck. The girl had been gang-raped, hot-line officials said.
"They don't know how to treat rape victims," the volunteer told the commission.
"There's a major need for education among law enforcement," said Leah Aldridge, from the Los Angeles Commission on Violence Against Women, which has training sessions for Los Angeles patrol officers and sheriff's deputies.
In Long Beach, rape hot line officials and investigators from the sex crime detail will soon be offering a training program about rape to all patrol officers, Batts announced at the meeting Wednesday.
Police are also considering a second proposal by hot-line officials that would change their procedures when a rape victim reports the crime. Hot-line officials have proposed that when police receive a call about a rape, they avoid sending a patrol officer and instead send a detective from the sex crime detail, along with a representative from the rape hot line and a police surgeon, if needed.
"We'll take it under consideration. It's a good idea," Batts said.