PHILADELPHIA — Alarmed at reports that police mishandled rape complaints in at least six U.S. cities, Sen. Arlen Specter, D-Pa., has scheduled a public hearing next week to explore what he called “the chronic failure to report and investigate rape cases.”

He is acting at the urging of the Women’s Law Project, a Philadelphia-based advocacy group that has noted recent news stories about police downgrading rape cases in New York, Baltimore, St. Louis, New Orleans, Milwaukee and Cleveland.

Specter said Tuesday that police too often fail to investigate rape in a sensitive fashion, as shown by the worrisome trend documented in the news reports. His goal, he said, is “to focus some attention on the issue, to see if we can get a proper response.”

In New York, according to articles in The New York Times and the Village Voice, police have downgraded rapes from felonies to misdemeanors – or rejected victims’ accounts as untrue.

In Baltimore, the Sun reported that police had dramatically reduced their annual tally of rapes while tripling the figure for complaints deemed false. The newspaper said that Baltimore police led the nation in the rate at which they called rape allegations “unfounded,” rejecting almost a third as false.

Advocates say treatment of victims of sexual assault remains a problem. Often, they say, women who report assaults can find themselves victimized by police who label them liars or blame them for the attack.

The Senate Judiciary Committee hearing will take place Sept. 14.

Among those slated to testify are Philadelphia Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey; Eleanor Smeal, head of the Feminist Majority Foundation; and Susan Carbon, director of the U.S. Justice Department’s Office of Violence Against Women.

The Women’s Law Project has followed the issue of police downgrading of rape complaints nationwide for a decade, since it became active in efforts to reform the system in Philadelphia.

The local changes were launched after The Philadelphia Inquirer reported in 2000 that Philadelphia police had secretly dumped thousands of complaints of sexual abuse with little or no investigation.

In response to the scandal, police reopened 1,822 buried crimes, including 681 rapes.