ANCHORAGE (AP) -- New FBI statistics indicate that Alaska's largest city continues to lead the nation in the rate of reported rapes. But just what those numbers mean isn't clear.
Authorities say they could mean that more women per capita are raped in Alaska than anywhere else in the U.S., or they could mean that more women are reporting that they've been raped. Experts said the answer never may be fully understood.
Rape under FBI reporting standards is defined as the forcible sexual penetration of a woman by a man. In 1998, the last year tallied, Alaska led the nation in the number of rapes reported per capita, at 68.6 per 100,000.
That isn't a new designation. Alaska has ranked highest in that category in 16 of the past 23 years.
The figures might be a good sign, indicating that rape victims in Alaska more often seek help from police and social service agencies, said Karen Bitzer, executive director of the organization Standing Together Against Rape.
''We don't think necessarily that higher numbers mean that more people are being raped,'' Bitzer told the Anchorage Daily News. ''We just keep hoping that the more we put the message out, the more comfortable people will be coming out.''
A high percentage of victims in Anchorage are Native, and she said Native women tend to feel more comfortable reporting sexual assault.
Although Natives make up 7.5 percent of the population in Anchorage, police said they account for 40 percent to 45 percent of the rape victims each year.
Most of the rapes in Anchorage are so-called acquaintance rapes, Anchorage Police Chief Duane Udland said. Very few are sudden attacks by strangers, he said.
Anchorage police took 161 rape reports in 1999.
Traditionally, police take a rape report, gather evidence and, after prosecution, file away all the information. Any broader analysis would come courtesy of an officer's memory and a department's stockpile of anecdotes.
Now, for the first time, the city of Anchorage is taking a serious look at its rapes.
Clerks are pulling case files from 1994 through 1998, and statisticians are comparing factors like age, race, previous contact between victim and suspect, alcohol and drug use and the location of the incident.
The researchers hope to have a draft of their findings this summer, said Carrie D. Longoria, with the Municipal Safe City Program.
City officials hope that by learning more about how and when rapes occur, they can find ways to prevent them.
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