An investigation by The Baltimore Sun reports disturbing news about the Baltimore City Police Department and its handling of rape cases at every point in the investigation. As a proud Baltimore native and a staunch advocate for women’s rights, this upsets me greatly.
Here’s the breakdown:
- 4 in 10 emergency calls alleging rape end in on-scene officers dismissing the case, concluding no further investigation is needed. These cases never make it to detectives or prosecutors.
- More than 30 percent of the cases investigated by detectives each year are deemed unfounded, five times the national average.
- The number of rapes reported in Baltimore has dropped by 80% over the last 15 years. The FBI reports the national rape rate over the same period of time has dropped by only 8%.
“Of the 194 reports of rape or attempted rape last year,” 62 (32%) were determined to be unfounded. In the vast majority of these cases, police say the victim recanted her story after initially seeking police involvement. If 40% of rape allegations are called “unfounded” in the field, and then 32% 0f those cases that do make it to investigators are delegitimized, the number of women who are suffering in silence from the emotional and physical toll of sexual assault is inexcusably high.
A common response to rape allegations – whether in large cities or on college campuses – is that the women are lying, either to punish the alleged rapist, or to detract attention from infidelity, etc. But the facts surrounding rape allegations tell a different story. “Studies suggest the percentage of rape claims that are false is between 2 percent and 8 percent.” In an editorial in Sunday’s paper, The Sun puts it this way:
It is often too difficult for rape victims to come forward, to report their crimes and to see to it that their attackers are brought to justice. The problem is not that women routinely make up rape allegations — who would willingly submit themselves to such unjust public humiliation?
Rape victims often feel ashamed to report their allegations to others in large part because they may have been partaking in activities that are either illegal or embarrassing at the time of the assault. Most experts on sexual assault agree that when victims recant their previous allegations, it is to avoid further emotional turmoil, especially in cases in which police investigators are questioning them in a way which makes the victims feel their stories are not being taken seriously. Victims report being interrogated by detectives while in the ER just after receiving rape kits – some women are even threatened with lie detector tests or cell phone record and video footage investigations. After undergoing such intense questioning, is it any wonder that some women would choose to recant their stories and attempt recovery on their own, rather than having to undergo scrutiny?
Rape is different from other crimes. Not only does it involve a violation more profound than any other crime but it also comes with a social stigma that forces victims to relive the pain again and again. No one suggests that a victim of a carjacking was really asking for it. No one asks whether an assault might really have been consensual. When a robbery victim is on the witness stand, the most private details of her life are not dissected under cross examination.”
The issue of determined a rape as “unfounded” in Baltimore is further complicated by high rates of prostitution and drug usage. One woman reportedly recanted an account of rape because she was “tired of people thinking they can do what they want to people because of her situation being a prostitute.” The message to police should be crystal clear: a victim’s activities at the time of an alleged sexual assault have no bearing on whether or not a crime occurred. Every case should be treated seriously, regardless of whether a woman was high, drunk, disabled, involved in prostitution, wearing a short skirt, walking in a bad area…etc. As to consent, the absence of ‘no’ is not ‘yes.’
Baltimore and Other Cities
There is an egregious disconnect between the reported number of sexual assaults in the city, and, in all likelihood, the number of actual rapes per year. Baltimore is one of only two cities in the nation in which homicide rates are significantly higher than reported rapes (the other is New Orleans, where a similar investigation is being conducted). Baltimore’s reported rape rates match up with relatively low-crime cities like Toledo and San Francisco, while our homicide rates more closely match Detroit and Philadelphia. [see graph]
A group of 50 detectives is responsible for all of the rape and child abuse cases in the city. (The Sun’s investigation uncovered that Detective Anthony Faulk Jr. is responsible for one-fifth of the unfounded reports, shelving 14 cases last year (the next highest “unfounded” case rate among the detectives is six) I would love to sit down and talk to this guy…) According to city procedure, officers in this unit must file chargers before the Baltimore state’s attorney office gets involved with the investigation. This recent rape statistic story has unearthed a longstanding conflict between the Police Department and the prosecutor’s office about who has “charging rights” in sexual abuse cases. Sometimes, there isn’t physical evidence of sexual assault (non-consensual, non-violent sex between a couple could be an example in some cases), and the only thing the police can go on – the only “proof” – is the woman’s word. This shows how vitally important the initial interaction between the victim and the police is in fully prosecuting a rape case.
Other cities (such as Philadelphia and Pittsburgh) have dealt with the changing nature of investigating sexual assault, as departments become more educated on the ideas of affirmative consent. Departments with relatively good sexual assault response programs often dispatch specialized units to respond to 911 calls. These departments also have specific classifications for sexual assault allegations which are later recanted by the victim – these reports are filed away and can be reopened if/when the victim decides to prosecute. These departments have it right – the focus should be on prosecuting the rapist – not on blaming the victim or making her feel uncomfortable for not having “evidence.”
The Next Step
Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake has ordered an audit of police procedure and statistics following The Sun’s investigation. As I’ve written previously, Rawlings-Blake has been a solid advocate for women’s rights in the past. Last year as City Council President, Ms. Rawlings-Blake ordered all Crisis Pregnancy Centers (CPCs) in Baltimore City to clearly display that they do not offer referrals or services for abortion or contraception. Baltimore was the first major city in the US to enact such a policy. Just last month at a Take Back the Night event in Baltimore, the Mayor spoke out about the importance of recognizing and reducing sexual assault, stating, “The number of women living with the long-term affects of sexual assault is much higher than reported.”
The Sun also reports that a task force has been created to further investigate the procedures of the department as well as look into the cases that have been deemed “unfounded” in the past. On Tuesday, it was announced that a rape hotline would be implemented to encourage victims to come forward with rape allegations by reducing the anxiety surrounding a police interrogation. Until police are adequately trained in dealing with rape reports, outsourcing sexual assault cases to experts is the right call.
Baltimore needs to utilize every possible avenue towards protecting rape victims moving forward. 911 response teams need to be trained to respect every victim and treat each allegation seriously. Investigators need to learn how to tactfully question victims to gain information about the situation, and when to it is time to stop questioning. If rape victims cannot trust their government to take them seriously in their allegations, how can we even begin to think about ways to reduce rape occurrences in our city? Rape victims are violated in the most extreme way. It is now the city’s job to convince residents that they “won’t be victimized again by a callous, cynical police department” and to take action to treat rape victims with the respect that should be afforded to citizens who turn to the law for protection.