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Denton rape rates soar above national and state averages, but other violent crime rates decrease

Violent crime in Denton has been decreasing overall since 2012, but the frequency of reported rapes in the city remains significantly greater than the state and national averages, according to national crime data.

Police Chief Lee Howell said recent highly publicized crimes may have contributed to an overall perception that Denton has become more violent over the years. But the frequency of reported homicides, robberies and aggravated assaults in Denton remains well below the frequency in the rest of the state, despite an estimated 15 percent increase in Denton's population since 2010.

The number of reported rapes, however, sticks out.

Chief Howell, Destiny Rose Murphy, Grant Testerman and Scott Spaulding
Chief Howell, Destiny Rose Murphy, Grant Testerman and Scott Spaulding

"We have analyzed the [sexual] assaults as best we can and have come to that conclusion that we have a lot because of the victim base provided by the two universities," Howell said. "The great majority of the cases have victims and perpetrators who are familiar with one another and often involve alcohol and drugs."

The FBI collects the number of reported offenses from departments around the nation. It's a voluntary reporting system, but the Denton Police Department reports its statistics on a monthly basis.

Violent crime includes murder, rape, robbery and aggravated assault.

From 2011 to 2014, the total number of reported rapes in Denton nearly doubled from 53 to 104. In 2014, the rape rate reached 81.04 per 100,000 people. That's higher than the 2014 national and statewide rates. It's also higher than rape rates in Austin, Dallas, Houston and San Antonio that year.

The FBI's Uniform Crime Reporting program shows 90 rapes reported in Denton in 2015, with a rate of 68.62 per 100,000 people. In Texas, 44.6 rapes were reported per 100,000 people. And in the United States, 38.6 rapes were reported per 100,000 people.

Statistics show 46 rapes in the city during the first six months of 2016. Numbers for the last half of 2016 are not yet available through the FBI reporting system. So, it's not possible to compare 2015 and 2016 rape rates using the FBI data base.

It's clear to local law enforcement officials that it's a problem, but experts warn against taking the data at face value.

*Violent crime includes homicide, rape, robbery and aggravated assault. 
*Violent crime includes homicide, rape, robbery and aggravated assault. 

Behind a rape report

Rape reports don't always lead to arrests. They're essentially allegations made against another person. A police investigation may find that the claim was either false or inaccurate.

The FBI defines rape as "penetration, no matter how slight, of the vagina or anus with any body part or object, or oral penetration by a sex organ of another person, without the consent of the victim." That definition doesn't include statutory rape, which is defined as consensual sex with a minor.

According to Sgt. Danny Fletcher, who supervises major criminal investigations at the police department, a Denton police investigator is assigned to every sexual assault report. And even if the investigation isn't complete, the number of reports is recorded and sent to the Texas Department of Public Safety, which then sends it to the FBI.

"If the report is made, we report them [to Texas DPS] accurately," he said. "We don't manipulate the data in any way."

Echoing Howell's comments, Fletcher said most sexual assault reports in Denton stem from a suspect and victim who know each other.

Nearly a year ago, Cameron Edward Miles was arrested and charged with raping a teenage co-worker outside of a local Subway restaurant. Several months later, in May 2017, a 19-year-old University of North Texas student told campus police that she was sexually assaulted by an "acquaintance" in her Maple Hall dorm room.

Denton police say they rarely encounter a serial rape suspect like Earl Leroy Thompson Jr., who is charged with one sexual assault and two attempted sexual assaults near the UNT campus in February and May.

Earl Leroy Thompson Jr.Courtesy photo
Earl Leroy Thompson Jr.
Courtesy photo

Thompson was the first person charged with raping or attempting to rape multiple strangers in the city in more than two decades, Howell said. The weeks-long investigation that led to his arrest in June was something the city department had not experienced in years.

Thompson is a former UNT custodian. During his night shift, police said he peered in apartment windows around the university campus and, on some occasions, entered the victim's home. Most of the victims who reported the assaults were in their early 20s.

The Thompson case is not typical, police say. But the victims in the case show the prevalence of sexual assault cases among college-age students.

Large victim base

There are roughly 53,000 students going to school at both universities in Denton -- about 38,000 at UNT and 15,000 at Texas Woman's University.

It's generally accepted that college towns deal with more rape cases per 100,000 population than other cities. Some experts say rape statistics don't reflect the overall safety of the community as much as the age group living there.

"In the study of crime, we have to speak as carefully and precisely as we can," said James Williams, a criminology professor at TWU. "Denton is generally a safe city. We can make statements about the overall safety based on crimes reported to police, but the reality is, if we really want understand safety, we have to ask, safe for whom?"

Victims' advocates say people are at the highest risk for sexual assault between the ages of 15 and 24.

In Denton, most rape reports involve residents living off campus. Only about 6,200 UNT students live on campus. Another 7,300 students live off campus in Denton, including in 14 fraternity and sorority houses. The remainder commute from other cities.

At TWU, 2,100 students live on campus. The university could not say how many live off campus in Denton or commute to classes.

Colleges and universities are required by the Clery Act  -- passed by Congress in 1990 -- to annually report crimes on or near campus.

TWU reported two rapes in 2014, and two in 2015. UNT reported six on-campus rapes in 2015, a drop from the 12 on-campus rapes reported the previous year.

Encouraging reporting

UNT Police Chief Ed Reynolds said the university has tried to do its part, from both the law enforcement and educational standpoints, to encourage rape reporting.

"I think that rape in general is under-reported, so you have to be careful," Reynolds said. "I think we, at UNT, in the last several years, have spent an enormous amount of effort to try to both educate our student body on how to report, as well as [teach] crime prevention strategies. And as we started ramping up our efforts to teach the students how to report ... we did see an increase [in reporting] that came along with that."

Nicole Holmes is a licensed psychologist and executive program director at Denton County Friends of the Family, a local nonprofit that supports victims of domestic violence and sexual abuse. She said Denton's university population, composed of educators and students, tend to lean toward "more liberal thinking with regards to social issues such as gender, diversity, and acceptance."

That type of culture encourages rape reporting, she said. She also cited changes to Title IX, a federal sex discrimination law.

"This attitude is less likely to rigidly adhere to rape myths and rape culture thinking, though it is still there," she said in an email. "Second, with the changes to Title IX in the last few years, universities have been forced to provide sexual assault awareness education to all staff and students. They have also been mandated to handle sexual assault outcries differently and to encourage rather than discourage police reporting."

In additional to changing local policies, the FBI modified its definition of rape in 2013 to include offenses involving oral or anal penetration, penetration with objects, and rapes of men. Statewide and national rates increased the following year. In some Texas cities, like Waco and San Antonio, the rape rate increased by almost 30 percent in 2014.

Criminology professor Williams said people should draw "conclusions of caution" when analyzing short-term spikes and changes in crime rates. He said meaningful trends reveal themselves over a period of 20 years.

Crime statistics, he said, have identifiable flaws.

"There's a lot more crimes out there than we know about," Williams said. "And it just does not simply come to the attention of the cops."

JULIAN GILL can be reached at 940-566-6882.

Total reported crimes in Denton

SOURCE: FBI Uniform Crime Reporting Program 

Crime 2011 2012 2013 2014 2015 2016 (6 months)
Homicide 2 1 1 2 2 3
Rape 53 86 93 104 90 46
Robbery 55 82 52 55 62 26
Aggravated assault 201 200 192 178 142 83
Property crimes* 3,315 3,262 2,777 3,021 3,144 1,424