Left: Carol Tracy today Right: Carol Tracy as a student at Penn

Carol Tracy had her first big experience advocating for victims of sexual assault when she was a junior at the University of Pennsylvania. It was 1973, and she’d gathered a group of students together to protest how campus police handled a report of a gang rape.

“The security force was unresponsive and told us not to wear provocative clothing,” Tracy, now the executive director of the Women’s Law Project, said. “We sort of said ‘fuck you’ and had a sit in.”

The students took over College Hall where the president’s office was located for five days. And the move led to major reforms at the city’s Ivy League university, including the establishment of a women’s center on campus.

Fast forward nearly four decades to 2011, and Tracy has a seat at the policing reform table. At a conference of the Police Executive Research Forum, now-former Philadelphia Police Commissioners Charles Ramsey and John Timoney — some of the top cops in the country — sat side-by-side with Tracy, a fiery feminist who had been largely critical of how police handled reports of sexual assault in years prior.

With the help of Tracy and other advocates in the city, things have changed. Now, Philadelphia is a model city for how to investigate cases of rape and sexual violence, and each year the Special Victims Unit opens up its case files to be audited by victims’ advocates, a level of access seen in few other cities.

“We see the bigger picture,” said Capt. John Darby, the head of the Special Victims Unit who is set to retire in several months. “And we come from two different, almost two opposite, sides of society. But we’ve been brought together, and we see the very positive outcomes to law enforcement and other agencies working together.”

It wasn’t always like this.

‘God awful’ treatment of women

In May 1998, 23-year-old Wharton student Shannon Schieber was raped and choked to death by a man who had broken into her home. She was the serial rapist’s fifth victim, and he went on to assault seven more women after her.

In 1999, an Inquirer investigation revealed that if it weren’t for shoddy police work in what was then called the Sex Crimes Unit, Schieber’s life could have been saved, had they known a serial rapist was assaulting women in the Rittenhouse Square area.

They didn’t know there was a pattern, in some ways because two rapes prior to Schieber’s had been down-graded by detectives, using a non-criminal code because they either didn’t believe the victims or for some other reason decided not to pursue it.

A severe lack of supervision was revealed. The Inquirer described a culture where cops belittled rape victims and routinely mischaracterized sexual violence so that they could improve their own clearance rates which were, at the time, some of the best in the country.

Timoney, the newly-appointed police commissioner at the time, said police in the city had treated women in a “god awful” way.

“That was really an extraordinary admission,” Tracy said.

Tracy, who has been in charge of the Women’s Law Project based in Philadelphia for 25 years, was largely focused on abortion rights at the time. But when the bombshell report dropped in 1999, she called Carol Johnson, the now-former head of Women Organized Against Rape, and said “we have to do something.”

They asked City Council to hold public hearings on the matter, and requested a meeting with Timoney. When Tracy made her first request — that his officers re-investigate cases back to the statute of limitations (at the time, only five years) — he responded that it was already in the works.

For a year and a half, they reinvestigated more than 2,000 cases. Of them, 681 were re-classified as rape and another 863 as other sex crimes. City Council held hearings. Timoney said publicly that the coding, which allowed for about a third of cases to be slid into limbo under 2701, was a mess.

In response, that classification was eliminated and sexual assault could no longer be declared non-criminal. They’d either be founded or unfounded. And Timoney, in working with Tracy and Johnson, decided the police department would open up their case files to women’s advocates to be audited.

During the case review process, attorneys from the Women’s Law Project, WOAR, the Penn Women’s Center and other groups have access to full case files and sit in a conference room for several days each year reviewing hundreds of cases. They’re looking to ensure cases were properly coded and correctly investigated.

Were all the relevant witnesses interviewed? Did the detective treat the case with the severity it deserved? Was the interview of the victim sensitive and timely? And that once-or-twice-yearly case review, admittedly uncomfortable but necessary for many involved, has continued to happen for the last 15 years.

“Philadelphia went from being a model of shoddy sex crimes practices,” Ramsey said during a congressional testimony, “to a source of inspiration for other departments seeking to do better.”

A force in policing reform

Tracy, originally from Chester, became the first director of the women’s center on Penn’s campus and later came to the Women’s Law Project, a group that was largely embroiled in reproductive rights work. When the Inquirer story in 1999 about the police treatment of sexual assault cases dropped, Tracy was thrust back into the conversation about policing and how officials handle reports of sex offenses.

“She’s a maverick,” Teresa White-Walston, WOAR director of education, said of Tracy. “You need vanguards like her.”

Tracy worked directly with then-City Councilman Angel Ortiz to schedule council hearings on the matter. And she spearheaded efforts along with Timoney to review the sexual violence case files, a precursor to the audits that take place now.

“Our position was the bad stuff has been analyzed, our job is to improve it for the future,” she said. “We weren’t there to rub anyone’s nose to the ground… Our job was to do systems improvement work.”

So during the case reviews, women’s advocates flag potentially problematic cases and recommends they be reinvestigated or re-opened by investigators.

Darby said that over the years the number of case files that are reinvestigated because advocates find problems has slowly decreased. Though some officers may “dread” case review time, they’ve learned from the advocates. And the advocates have learned from them, too.

“The threshold has been lifted for the investigator and the perhaps at one time idealistic view of the reviewer or the auditor has now come down to a more realistic level,” he said. “And what do we have? We have a higher threshold of service for the victim.”

A new look for SVU

SVU Capt. John Darby
SVU Capt. John Darby Credit: Philadelphia Children’s Alliance

It’s a quiet Friday afternoon in the Special Victims Unit located in the Juniata Park area of town, and Capt. John Darby can’t stop talking.

He’s been captain of SVU for 14 years, and is showing me around the office. He points out small, quiet rooms meant for interviewing victims of sexual violence. He shows me the desks where his investigators work that look upon holding cells. Two men are being held either for the purpose of giving a statement or having their DNA collected.

Darby points out murals painted on the walls where victims are brought that are meant to feel welcoming. I’m introduced to Lt. Michael Boyle, a former police officer who now helps run the PSARC unit where rape kits are taken. And Darby talks about the top-notch facility as if he’s the proud owner of a recently renovated home.

“I know I talk myself blue in the face,” he says, but “because of the transparency and the advocacy groups… this whole idea of what we’re doing, this whole operation here, it would not have come about unless we really did show that we were all working together.”

Today, the Special Victims Unit is housed along with officials from the Department of Human Services and the Philadelphia Children’s Alliance, making it easier for child victims of abuse to come forward.

This facility opened officially in April 2013. Prior to that, the unit, founded in 1981, was housed at Episcopal Hospital in Kensington. But before 2001, it was Tracy who went to bat for the unit to get them out of where they’d been before — a decrepit former military arsenal that was overcrowded and surrounded with barbed wire.

At the time, women had been waiting up to six hours in the emergency room before they were having rape kits performed. Boyle said the assumption was some victims were simply leaving the hospital and never reporting because of the backlog in the ER. Victims who had just been through a traumatic assault were being brought to the facility and sitting in a waiting room, sometimes just feet away from alleged perpetrators standing in handcuffs.

The new facility has been a long time coming. Darby said it’s Tracy who deserves a great deal of credit for getting them out of the arsenal in the early aughts.

Now, as Tracy and Darby both creep toward retirement age, Darby says he’s hopeful the partnership between women’s advocates and the Special Victims Unit will continue. The police have learned a great deal from these feminist advocates about best practices. And the advocates have learned from the cops, too.

“I just read paper. I don’t see faces. I don’t hear the stories,” Tracy said of the case review. “And I hate, I hate doing this. Because I’m reading about such tragedy. Vile human behavior. So I’ve come to understand how hard this is to do.”

An ‘optimistic’ outlook

Today, the Philadelphia Police Department is seen as a model for how it investigates instances of sexual violence, whether it’s the fact that the department is housed with other agencies, or the idea of opening their books to advocates. Human Rights Watch has praised the department for being victim-centered, and leaders have repeatedly spoken on national platforms about how they do things here in Philly.

In November, Tracy won the President’s Award for Distinguished Contributions to Justice from the American Society of Criminology. It cited her work in helping to reform the Philadelphia Police Department, as well as her efforts spearheading the decade-long campaign to change how the FBI counts sex crimes, including testifying before Congress.

Darby sees his unit continuing to change in the future as it works to bring more agencies and representatives under one roof. Tracy sees the next decade holding conversations around policing reform to rid the industry of gender bias, a problem she says won’t change until “society at large” does.

Of course, policing in Philadelphia and elsewhere will never be perfect. Darby knows that. His officers know that. And Tracy knows that.

“The police have a very high duty here,” she said. “But they’re not the only problem in the room. So that makes me feel actually pretty optimistic.”

Anna Orso was a reporter/curator at Billy Penn from 2014 to 2017.