Fargo, Moorhead, West Fargo police lag far behind national rate in clearing rape cases
The Fargo Police Department has spent the last year trying to figure out why its clearance rates of sexual assault cases are low. The Forum dug into the numbers, and asked what Fargo police are doing to improve their stats.
FARGO — Clearance rates for rape cases in Fargo have come in far below the national average over the last decade, and the city's police department is trying to figure out why.
From 2012 through 2021, the clearance rate for sexual assault cases in Fargo was 15%, according to a Forum analysis of FBI Uniform Crime Reporting data.
The average national clearance rate from 2012 through 2020 was about 36%. The 2021 national rate was not available.
The FBI considers a case cleared when a suspect is arrested and charged. The suspect also must be brought to court for prosecution.
Cases can be cleared under circumstances that are out of law enforcement's control, the FBI said. Those exceptional clearances include a suspect dying.
For almost a year, the Fargo Police Department has been looking into what is causing its low clearance rates, Chief David Zibolski said. The department is in the beginning stages of working on issues it has identified, he said.
“I think we made a good start,” Zibolski said. “I think there's a lot more information that we don't have yet. … There’s a lot of other pieces to this puzzle.”
Fargo isn't alone. The Moorhead Police Department's clearance rate of sexual assault cases was 14% over the same 10-year period, according to FBI data. Grand Forks and West Fargo police departments each came in at 16%.
Moorhead Police Capt. Deric Swenson said his department likely will start to track how sexual assault cases turn out not just when an arrest is made but how the case concludes in court. Swenson said the FBI data doesn’t tell the full story of why cases are counted as uncleared.
“When we started having questions on this, obviously, the public is going to have more questions,” he said.
Last year, the Fargo Police Department had 120 reported cases of sexual assault and cleared 14, according to the FBI. Moorhead cleared six of its 28 reported cases, the FBI said.
A number of factors can cause a sexual assault case to be dragged out, Fargo Police Capt. George Vinson said. It takes time to develop a case that can be proven beyond a reasonable doubt, he said.
With court delays, a case reported to police in November likely will carry on well into 2023, he said.
“It may look as though our 2022 clearance numbers are X, Y and Z, but we are still working those cases,” he said.
Zibolski said his department has increased the sense of urgency in solving sexual assault cases, giving them the same priority as a homicide.
“That's some of the kind of cultural changes that are being made,” the chief said.
Zibolski also noted backlogs at the North Dakota crime lab in testing sexual assault evidence kits. Some of the kits the department was waiting on were more than a year old when The Forum interviewed him in August.
He said he was not satisfied with the lab's turnaround time on testing sexual assault kits.
“One of our biggest responsibilities is protecting the vulnerable from harm and preventing future victimization,” Zibolski said. “Every one of those cases could likely be another victim in the making when we don't identify a perpetrator, especially if it's not a known suspect.”
FBI stats questioned
Several local law enforcement agencies said the FBI's data overestimates the numbers of uncleared cases since they don’t always include cases in which a victim recants their statements or declines seeking charges before the case reaches prosecutors. The FBI keeps track of stats, not convictions, West Fargo Police Sgt. Tim Runcorn said.
“When it comes to clearance, the FBI doesn’t go back and check to see if we got a conviction on the guy,” Runcorn said. “That’s where it gets a little dicey.”
One expert said clearance numbers mean nothing and do little to tell the results of rape cases.
“First of all, people think clearance rates equals solvability,” said Joanne Archambault, CEO and founder of End Violence Against Women International. “It’s not about solvability. It’s about whether or not we can prosecute the case."
The Grand Forks Police Department reviewed its sexual assault cases and found that 26 of its 42 cases saw no prosecution last year. A victim who says they don’t want charges or recants a statement counts toward no prosecution numbers at the Grand Forks Police Department, Lt. Jeremy Moe said. (Fargo police have not done a similar review of their sexual assault cases.)
A prosecutor may pursue charges in a case without a victim's cooperation if there's enough evidence, but oftentimes police cease an investigation out of respect for the accuser’s wishes, Moe said.
Such cases are technically counted by the FBI as not cleared, he said.
“I can say that I think our clearance rates, based on what we count as a clearance, is way higher than what the FBI is, in my opinion,” Moe said.
Law enforcement can do everything right, get charges and not get a suspect in custody, Swenson noted.
Asked why all cases aren’t sent to prosecutors, regardless of whether the victim wants charges or not, Vinson said clearance rates don’t automatically go up as a result of sending a case to a prosecutor.
Not all law enforcement agencies in North Dakota had low sexual assault clearance rates.
The Bismarck Police Department cleared almost 50% of its cases from 2012 through 2021. Sgt. Mike Blome attributed the high number to his team that investigates personal crimes.
Victims often feel they are left hanging because they don't hear from the system until it is ready to prosecute in some cases, Blome said. His office focuses on keeping in touch with victims and building relationships, he said.
“We have a far higher rate of success as far as prosecution because of that approach,” he said. “That’s a victim-centered approach.”
Law enforcement agencies in the Fargo-Moorhead area told The Forum their investigators hold themselves to a high standard, advocate for victims and do everything they can to solve cases for sexual assault victims.
Archambault said it is better to evaluate how departments follow-up with and treat victims than to look at clearance rates. She said she tracked the outcomes of sexual assault cases investigated by the San Diego Police Department when she supervised the sex crime unit in the last 10 years of her law enforcement career.
Her unit investigated roughly 1,000 felony sexual assaults each year, she said.
Archambault advised law enforcement to track the results of their cases but also called on the FBI to be more specific in reporting its numbers.
“We only know from researchers that 33% to 55% of victims decline participation,” she said.
The FBI said it was considering adding new classifications of how cases are counted as cleared or uncleared in the bureau's database.
'Leading the way'
Law enforcement is just one of many pieces involved in seeking justice for sexual assault victims, said Christopher Johnson, CEO for the Fargo Rape and Abuse Crisis Center.
The justice system is not designed to be victim-centered, and a case can take months to move through the courts, he said.
A victim may not want to take the stand or proceed because they don’t want to relive their assault, Johnson said. Some will force themselves to stick it out, while others say they want to put the pieces of their lives back together on their own, he said.
“That is their choice. They absolutely get to decide how they want to move forward,” Johnson said. “But we certainly see that kind of fatigue of victims where, ‘I’ve been reliving this trauma for months, and there is no resolution in sight.'”
The Fargo Police Department is looking into a case management system aimed at helping determine where cases are at, which cases need to be prioritized and which ones need follow-ups, Zibolski said. The department doesn’t have an electronic system for tracking sexual assault cases, and having one would help facilitate efficiency, he said.
Zibolski said his department is working to build stronger partnerships with organizations that can help bring awareness to sexual assaults, improve training and help solve cases.
“They are tough cases, but we want to be leading the way,” the chief said. “I think it's important for our community to know that we take this seriously.”
Editor's note: The National Sexual Assault Hotline is 800-656-4673. The Rape and Abuse Crisis Center in Fargo also has a 24/7 crisis line, which is 800-344-7273.