It’s a startling statistic: Minneapolis has reported the highest rate of forcible rapes in the country for the past five years.

But rape is not more prevalent here, police say. Instead, the Minneapolis Police Department has included a much broader range of sexual assaults in the rape numbers provided to the FBI since at least 2004.

The head of the city’s sex crimes unit, Cmdr. Nancy Dunlap, says it more accurately represents sexual violence and, in fact, the FBI recently asked all cities to report this category of crime in that way.

But after the Star Tribune inquired about the city’s apparent status as the national leader in rape, Dunlap said the department will send a letter acknowledging the incorrect numbers to the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension (BCA), which collects the numbers for the FBI.

Politicians and law enforcement leaders frequently cite statistics from the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report to compare cities and try to spot trends. In recent years, Mayor R.T. Rybak and others have touted a drop in homicides, assaults and other violent crime since such incidents peaked in 2006.

By contrast, the FBI’s statistics on forcible rape get much less attention, likely because it’s a vastly underreported crime and because law enforcement and other agencies have openly disagreed about what types of offenses it should include. It’s so controversial that Chicago does not submit forcible-rape statistics to the FBI. In Minnesota, only Minneapolis and St. Paul have been reporting these numbers.

Every year since 2007, the FBI’s stats indicate that Minneapolis had the highest rate of rapes in the country. In 2011, the rate was 100 forcible rapes per 100,000 residents, followed by Anchorage, Alaska, with 95.

Minneapolis may have given the wrong numbers to the FBI, but “this is a positive story for the city of Minneapolis and the police department as a whole,” Dunlap said.

“The public should know that Minneapolis has been overreporting and more accurately reporting sexual assaults in the city of Minneapolis.”

Knew for several years

Dunlap said she’s known for several years about the error, but correcting it “wasn’t the biggest issue on our plate.”

“My job was working on rape cases,” she said.

She said there was a lack of communication between her and those in the department reporting the numbers to the BCA. Dunlap said her staff wasn’t filtering out rape cases to comply with the FBI requirements.

The FBI will only count cases that fit rape defined as “the carnal knowledge of a female forcibly and against her will.” That definition excludes incest, oral, anal or statutory rape, or rape by coercion, cases that Dunlap said Minneapolis police had been including.

The FBI’s definition had been in place since the 1920s, until pressure from police and advocacy groups prompted a change to expand the definition to cover more types of sex assaults. That includes male rapes, which the Minneapolis police had not been reporting to the FBI.

As to the true number of reported rapes in Minneapolis over the last several years, Dunlap said she didn’t know. She also said the department wouldn’t go back to correct the data held by the FBI because of the amount of work involved.

She said she reviewed 50 cases from 2012 and found that 35 of those would have met the FBI’s previous definition of rape. She estimated that reducing each year’s total by 30 percent would provide the number of FBI-defined forcible rapes.

Taking the 30 percent reduction into account, Minneapolis would still be among the top five cities in the country for reported rapes over the last several years, an analysis shows.

The Police Executive Research Forum in Washington, D.C., lobbied for broadening the definition of forcible rape. Chuck Wexler, the forum’s executive director, said he does not fault Minneapolis for being “over-inclusive.”

“If anything, it gives a better snapshot,” Wexler said. “The problem is Minneapolis is now being compared to other cities that have not done that, and I don’t think that’s fair to Minneapolis.”

Federal funds tied to numbers

The city may have benefited from overreporting this category of crime. Minneapolis has received as much as $6.5 million in grants from the U.S. Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Assistance since 2009.

Alexia Cooper, a statistician with the Department of Justice, said that if Minneapolis hadn’t reported its rape numbers, it could have lowered that amount, but couldn’t say by how much because of how the funding formula works.

“It’s a little bit simplistic,” she said. “But report fewer crimes, get less money.”

An FBI spokesman said there are no penalties for providing incorrect data, and it will not ask the city to correct its numbers.

Some said accurate data is vital.

“It’s about public accountability,” said Kimberly Lonsway, research director for End Violence Against Women International. “The stats are used by their communities to evaluate their police agencies.”

Some Minneapolis sexual-assault victim advocates said they didn’t know about the rape numbers the Minneapolis police had reported to the FBI. Pamela Zeller, executive director of the Sexual Violence Center, said she didn’t use the FBI numbers, believing they only counted the narrow definition of rape.

She said she got the city’s rape statistics from the police department. She was told there were about 426 reported rapes in the city in 2012, and nearly 1,400 sexual misconduct cases.

Even that number is likely a fraction of the actual assaults. Research suggests that about 5 to 15 percent of sexual assaults are reported, said Donna Dunn, executive director of the Minnesota Coalition Against Sexual Assault.

She wants a more accurate count of sexual assaults.

“Not being able to count something this destructive in the community is hard for me to wrap my mind around,” she said. “If this was a strain of flu, we’d have figured out a way to count it.”