Lack of police reports stalls review of city rape allegations

Officials to appear at City Council hearing on rape reporting problems

August 04, 2010|By Justin Fenton, The Baltimore Sun

Detectives have begun reviewing rape reports summarily dismissed by Baltimore police over the past 18 months, though efforts to discern why incident reports were not taken in hundreds of 911 calls to police have sputtered.

Because 911 calls are typically stored for no longer than 90 days, officials are struggling to find other possible documentation.

"There's not much to review," said Elizabeth Embry of the mayor's office on criminal justice.

Meanwhile, some experts have asked whether the Police Department should be reviewing its own mishandled cases.

Lisae C. Jordan, executive director of the Maryland Coalition Against Sexual Assault's legal institute, said she was "reserving judgment" until a list of protocols to guide the review had been compiled.

"Ideally, you probably need a mix of people from outside [the agencies] and also inside, so they can have discussions about what was happening on the ground," Jordan said. "They're still discussing having someone from outside Baltimore City also participating."

Government and police officials are expected to update the City Council on the progress of their review at an investigative hearing tonight, one month after a Baltimore Sun article that questioned the way the Police Department investigates allegations of rape prompted Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake to order reform measures.

City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young called the numbers "alarming." Police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III and Baltimore State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy have been invited to testify at the hearing.

A Sun analysis of federal crime statistics and city police reports showed that for the past five years, Baltimore has led the nation in the percentage of rape allegations that police say are false or baseless. Many victims of sexual assaults say police interrogators ask confrontational questions and challenge their motives and truthfulness; as a result, many women decide not to cooperate, leading to the cases being shelved.

The newspaper's review found that four in 10 calls to 911 during that period never made it to detectives specializing in sex crimes, having been dismissed by police officers at the scene with no report taken.

Officials have pledged to conduct a thorough review and produce long-lasting reforms, with Bealefeld calling the situation a "crisis" that the department ignored for years. They are seeking grant money, revising internal procedures and working more closely with victim's advocacy groups. A hot line was created for people to request that their cases be reviewed. And the mayor formed a task force to take a broader look at the issue.

Similar irregularities in the reporting of rape statistics have surfaced across the country, including in Philadelphia, where police in 1999 reopened 2,500 rape cases going back five years – the statute of limitations in Pennsylvania. Of those, police auditors determined that 2,300 were mishandled. A coalition of local women's groups was permitted to review the cases labeled "unfounded," a process that continues a decade later.

The initial effort at reform in Baltimore got off to a bumpy start, with the commander tapped by Bealefeld to oversee the unit opting to retire. The department has yet to find a replacement.

And the team tasked with reviewing rape reports from the past year and a half has raised concerns among victims' advocacy groups – it is led by a sergeant from the Police Department's cold case sex offense unit and the head of the state's attorney's office's sex offense unit. Experts say the review should include independent eyes from outside the department.

But Embry said the review has already begun. Sex offense detectives, as well as detectives who will be conducting the audit, attended retraining over the course of two days last week. An employee from the Maryland Coalition Against Sexual Assault and Howard County sex crimes investigator Roland Denton led the training.

Embry said the results of the audit of "unfounded" cases will be presented to the mayor's task force, and members will determine whether any should be reopened. Advocates from Turnaround Inc. would then help police reach out to any victims. That review includes at least 12 cases in which people called the city-established hot line maintained by Towson-based Turnaround to ask that their cases be reviewed.

Meanwhile, efforts to glean why officers in the patrol division failed to take reports has been difficult.

"What they found is that there's very, very limited information, because no report was taken," Embry said.

Police spokesman Anthony Guglielmi and Chief of Patrol John Skinner did not reply to requests for comment.

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