As many as five Baltimore police detectives will review rape reports from the past 18 months to determine whether they were appropriately dismissed by detectives, the first step as officials try to improve the way the city investigates rapes and other sex crimes.
Col. Dean Palmere, chief of criminal investigations, said a sergeant and three or four detectives not affiliated with the sex offense unit plan to examine reports from 2009 and the first half of 2010. They will also scrutinize more than two dozen complaints made by alleged victims through a recently established hot line.
Because the department's protocols are under scrutiny, the detectives will be judging the cases based on a yet-to-be-determined set of new standards. Consultants or others not part of the police department could also be involved in the audit.
The review was one of the initiatives discussed Thursday as a group of law enforcement officials and those who work with victims of sexual assault met for the first time since Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake asked the group to focus on reforming sex-offense investigations. The request came after a Baltimore Sun article pointed out apparent irregularities in the way police handle sex crimes.
Since 2004 the city has led the country in the percentage of rape cases determined by investigators to be untrue or baseless, with about a third of rape reports marked "unfounded" each year. Moreover, four in 10 emergency calls do not result in a police report, and women have complained that police dismiss their concerns at the scene and that detectives ask hostile or confrontational questions that lead victims to decide not to pursue their complaints. Baltimore's rape total has tumbled 80 percent since the mid-1990s.
The team that gathered Thursday first began meeting last year, composed of officials from the Police Department, prosecutor's office, Mercy Medical Center staff who conduct rape evaluations, and the victims advocacy group Turn Around Inc. With its revised focus, the group is being shepherded by the mayor's director of criminal justice, Sheryl Goldstein, one of several new members. Goldstein has said she will work with the group despite starting a leave of absence this week as her husband mounts a campaign for city state's attorney.
Joanne Stanton, chief of the state's attorney's sex offense division, was not at the meeting. Prosecutors said last week that problems with police rape investigations were due in part to police not involving prosecutors in the charging process.
The discussion Thursday, at a session not open to the public or news media, was general in nature, and Palmere said the review would take time.
"This is something that has been ongoing and we want to take our time with it and make it right," Palmere said. "We're confident that we can move forward in a positive direction and have one of the best [sex crimes] units out there."
Rosalyn Branson, executive director of Turn Around, said she was encouraged.
"There was no denial of the problem, and a clear commitment to fixing it," she said. "There's a lot of pieces that don't have a plan yet, but everybody got their marching orders."
The problem received attention in late 2003, under then-Commissioner Kevin Clark, when an internal audit determined that the department had underreported rapes by more than 15 percent. However, the revised numbers weren't reported to the FBI, and the troubling trends accelerated in the ensuing years.
An exhaustive review of all city crime data was also conducted in 1999 when Martin O'Malley became mayor, and Police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III in recent years has trumpeted a "staff review" process in which reports are double-checked to ensure that they were accurately categorized.
Though Bealefeld oversaw criminal investigations beginning in 2006 and has been commissioner since 2007, his spokesman placed blame on past administrations.
"This has been a problem with the agency for 10 years, and past administrations would audit it and let it go back to where it was," Anthony Guglielmi, the department's chief spokesman, said Wednesday. "We need … to systematically change the way we do business."
Police officials have pledged that this review will go deeper and result in lasting procedural changes. In addition to the review of shelved cases, Palmere said, police were exploring the ways patrol officers handle rape claims and will be pulling tapes of emergency calls.
Hundreds of calls to 911 for reports of rape or attempted rape each year don't generate a police report, perhaps the chief reason for the substantial decline and the area where less information has been available.
The effort has faced an early obstacle as the commander chosen by Bealefeld to oversee reforms in the sex offense unit, Southern District Maj. Scott Bloodsworth, opted instead to retire this week on his first day in the new role. Police are continuing to search for a replacement.
Branson said one of her goals was to make victims' advocates a bigger part of the process, at Mercy or during investigations. Her team gathered and distributed information on how other similar sexual assault review panels function in other cities.
She said counselors continue to field calls on a hotline — 443-279-0379 — from alleged victims who say their cases were wrongly ignored by detective or that reports were not taken.
"We're just getting started," Branson said.
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