Courts & Crime

Charlotte police blame the Internet for rise in rape cases

CHARLOTTE — Reported rape is up 16 percent in Mecklenburg County this year, fueled by the popularity of Internet dating and online classifieds offering sexual services, Charlotte police and experts say.

“In the past, (rapists) would have to hunt and stalk,” said Sgt. Darrell Price, who's in charge of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department's sexual assault unit. “Now, all you have to do is (get on the Internet), and she's waiting for you at a hotel room.”

Officials also say a higher percentage of victims each year are coming forward to report rape. Nationally, the number of rapes reported to police has increased by 30 percent since 1993, according to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network, a nonprofit advocacy group.

Greater media coverage, including attention from Oprah Winfrey, is lessening the shame and social stigma of being a victim, says Brandy Redmile Stephens, victim services director for Charlotte's United Family Services. The nonprofit has been seeing more victims lately, but she couldn't say how many more.

“It's getting easier for them to understand that it's not something they should keep a secret,” she said. “They're more informed.”

In North Carolina, a new state law that passed this year allows victims to provide medical evidence anonymously and free before deciding if they want to call police. To be effective, medical evidence needs to be collected within 72 hours of an assault.

In the past, victims without medical insurance might have paid $800 or more for an ambulance, emergency room and for a doctor or nurse to collect the evidence, Stephens estimated. The state-run N.C. Rape Victims Assistance Program now reimburses a medical staff up to $1,000.

Medical professionals also used to require the victim to report the rape to police before they would collect evidence. So victims who had financial concerns or were too traumatized missed their chance to provide forensic evidence and regretted it later, Price said. Now, they can decide later if they want to file a police report and still preserve evidence, he said.

“It gives the victim much more power,” he said.

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