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It is a very different kind of crime. It has a different dynamic to it. It is important for us to treat it differently than we do other crimes."

The Chattanooga Police Department is launching a team of investigators that will be dedicated exclusively to working sex crime and domestic violence cases -- a special victims unit.

The new unit, which will include six detectives, aims to take over the investigation of all of the department's sex crimes by June 8, said Lt. Darrell Whitfield.

The change represents the first time in recent memory that all of Chattanooga's sex crimes will be handled by one central team, according to police. Now, sex crime cases end up in several different departments -- from major crimes to the juvenile division -- depending on the circumstances of the case.

The special victims unit will bring all those cases into once place, Whitfield said. Unit detectives will receive extra training on how to investigate sex crimes and domestic violence, he added.

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Lt. Darrell Whitfield loads a three dimensional rendering at his office.

"It's a better way to do it," he said. "If you're wearing 100 hats, it's hard to wear one well. So we're trying to separate [these crimes] out so [investigators] can concentrate and be more focused."

During 2014, Chattanooga police investigated 128 reports of forcible rape, according to the department. Investigators determined that 45 of those reports were unfounded. Of the 83 credible reports, 23 ended in a suspect's arrest.

That's about a 28 percent clearance rate, and slightly higher than the 23 percent clearance rate investigators obtained in 2013, when detectives took on 52 credible cases and arrested suspects in 12 of those cases, according to police.

Over the last 10 years, Chattanooga police on average have arrested suspects in about 29 percent of rape cases, according to data from the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation. Rape cases can be hard to solve for several reasons, Whitfield said, including the difficulty of proving consent. And sometimes, victims don't want to prosecute, he added.

Whitfield said he hopes the new unit eventually will be able to bring the clearance rate up. But first, he expects the number of reported sex crimes and domestic violence incidents to climb as victims who may not have reported the crimes in the past start to report the assaults to law enforcement.

Reported rapes already jumped from 98 in 2013 to 128 in 2014. But that jump could just be driven by a change in the way the police department files reports, Whitfield said. Investigators used to do some work on a case before deciding whether to file an official police report, but now they always file a report before starting to work a case, Whitfield said.

The special victims unit will be housed at the city's Family Justice Center in Eastgate Town Center, rather than at the police department, said Valerie Radu, executive director.

The Family Justice Center is intended to be a one-stop-shop for victims of domestic violence -- a place where police, social services and mental health providers can work together under one roof.

The center will officially open its doors on July 1, Radu said. Whitfield expects to see the bump in crime reporting in the months after the opening.

By the numbers

Year -- Reported forcible rapes -- Unfounded Cases -- Adjusted Count -- Cleared by Arrest -- Suspended/Inactive

2014 -- 128 -- 45 -- 83 -- 23 -- 16

2013 -- 98 -- 46 -- 52 -- 12 -- 6

Source: Chattanooga Police Department

"What I fully expect to happen once the main center is up and running is to see a 30 percent increase in reporting of domestic crimes," he said. "It's not because of an increase in domestic violence, it's just an increase in reporting. And that's almost our goal, to increase reporting -- we want people to feel more free coming forward."

Eventually, he said, they'd like to bring those numbers back down.

"The grand hope overall is that actual rapes go down, but the ones that do come in, the arrest rates and solvability go up," he said.

And while the Family Justice Center will work with victims of both domestic violence and sexual assault, the Partnership for Families, Children and Adults' Rape Crisis Center will continue to handle the bulk of victim services for sexual assault victims, Radu said.

The Family Justice Center will focus more on domestic violence victims, Radu said.

The Rape Crisis Center, located downtown, is the only local agency that can conduct forensic exams for rape victims. Caroline Huffaker, a victim advocate at the Rape Crisis Center, said their staff has been hoping for a special victims unit for years.

"What we know about sexual assault, along with domestic violence, is that it is a very different kind of crime," she said. "It has a different dynamic to it. It is important for us to treat it differently than we do other crimes."

The Rape Crisis Center's nurses have completed 97 forensic exams so far during the 2014-2015 fiscal year, which ends June 30, Huffaker said. That's slightly higher than usual -- typically, the center will conduct about 90 exams during a fiscal year.

Contact staff writer Shelly Bradbury at 423-757-6525 or sbradbury@timesfreepress.com with tips or story ideas.

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