Sex Crimes: Is Safety Sacrificed for Secrecy? in a Recent Five Points Rape, Neighbors Weren't Given Details for Days, Due to Condensed Police Reports and Strict State Laws

Article excerpt

Byline: DANA TREEN

When police finally released information about the rape of a woman bicycling in Jacksonville's Five Points area last month, a week after the crime, it put the Riverside neighborhood and business district on edge.

At Hair Peace on Lomax Street, salon coordinator Erin Bell said those who used to ride bikes to work haven't since. Those who drive park out front rather than in back.

"People are more cautious," she said. "It's getting dark at 6 o'clock."

In a city where 113 rapes were reported in the first half of 2009, women's advocates say police usually withhold timely information that could help the public, if they release any information at all. Police counter that they'll only release information when they feel the public needs to be put on alert.

For at least a year, the Jacksonville Sheriff's Office routinely did not provide sex crimes reports to the media. When pressed by The Times-Union, police began issuing reports on a once-a-week basis, but those reports were heavily marked with thick black ink that left little legible other than times and dates.

FIVE POINTS RAPE

Such was the case with initial reports of the Oct. 9 gang rape in Five Points, which involved three young adult males who attacked about 8 p.m. as the woman was riding on Goodwin Street. Composite sketches of two attackers, issued several days after the initial report, still stare from store windows in the neighborhood, but police haven't made any arrests.

Days later, an elderly woman was repeatedly raped and robbed in her Avondale home. The Jacksonville Sheriff's Office didn't release information about the suspect's Oct. 17 arrest until Times-Union follow-up inquiries a week and a half later.

"I think the public is not made aware anywhere near where they need to be," said Julie Hemminger, director of the rape recovery team at the Women's Center of Jacksonville.

Information about sex crimes is strictly protected by state confidentiality laws, though investigators can release some details if they wish. Jacksonville Sheriff's Office Chief Rick Graham said information about cases is released when police determine there is a need. Police seek common denominators among different cases and match suspect descriptions to identify trends and patterns.

"If we know that and we feel there is a need to inform the public to where they can be extra cautious - trust me, we will be out there," he said.

SENSITIVE INFORMATION

Other Northeast Florida agencies, such as the sheriff's offices in St. Johns and Clay counties, also redact certain things that may identify the victim - but not as broadly for other details.

"It is a matter of finding a balance," said Sgt. Chuck Mulligan of the St. Johns County Sheriff's Office.

Withholding sensitive case information and informing the public both play critical roles, said Mary Justino, spokeswoman for the Clay County Sheriff's Office. …