Recognizing rape

Our view: Baltimore's attitude about sexual assault has changed

December 06, 2010

Of all the problems The Sun's Justin Fenton uncovered in his July report on the alarmingly high rate at which Baltimore police deemed reports of rape to be unfounded, the most troublesome was the attitude of those charged with investigating sexual assault cases. More than procedural shortfalls, the problem was an insidious groupthink that had evolved in the sex offense unit, leading officers to believe that purported victims frequently lie to gain personal advantage. Victims found themselves suddenly the subject of intense interrogations, and many concluded that they would get no help, no comfort and no justice from the police.

It is too early to say that problem has been fixed, but Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and Police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III are taking the right steps to make sure it is.

Rather than acting defensively when faced with the statistics Mr. Fenton compiled — better than half of all reports of rape in the city (the highest rate in the nation) either resulted in no report or a police determination that the accusations were "unfounded" — Ms. Rawlings-Blake ordered an audit and convened a task force to work on the issue. Mr. Bealefeld described the situation as a "crisis" and replaced the commander of the sex crimes unit. The city studied 135 sexual assault and rape cases that had been labeled unfounded, and they determined that 71 of them should be reopened.

The police have made important procedural changes, including a requirement that an officer's supervisor and unit commander approve any decision to declare sexual assault reports unfounded; previously, patrol officers had that authority on their own, with no review. Detectives from the sex offense unit were retrained and are now required to respond to every sex assault call and to write a report.

Significantly, this appears to have helped repair the trust between victims of sexual violence and the police department. As a result of the very public actions by city leaders, at least four women who had never reported being raped came forward, and reports of rape as of Nov. 1 were up 48 percent compared to the same period last year, despite having been on the decline before Mr. Fenton's investigation was published.

When Mr. Fenton interviewed victims of sexual assault — and, amazingly, current and former sex offense detectives — they described interrogations in which the police accused victims of making false accusations as cover for having cheated on a boyfriend or for having made a decision they regretted. It was, Mr. Bealefeld said at a City Council hearing on Wednesday, a unit that had "devolved into poor practices over an extended period of time." Based on the response from the mayor and police commissioner, it's hard to believe anyone in the unit could still believe that attitude is acceptable.

But just as the problems took "an extended period of time" to develop, so too will it take years to make sure the change sticks. Ms. Rawlings-Blake and Mr. Bealefeld have done and said the right things so far, but their efforts need to be seen by everyone in the police department and the community as the beginning rather than the end.

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