Experts on sexual assaults and police investigations say victims sometimes recant their stories to avoid interacting with police and prosecutors, particularly if they feel that their account is not being taken seriously. In those cases, they say, police should not record the incident as a false report.
This article refers to the women who made the reports as "victims" because that is how they have identified themselves, regardless of whether law enforcement agrees with that label.
Of 194 reports of rape or attempted rape received by Baltimore detectives last year, about 32 percent — or 62 in all — were determined to be unfounded, according to a March audit provided by the department. Police said that in the vast majority of those cases, the victim "admitted that the original allegation was untruthful."
The reports show the complexity of cases brought to police. In a significant number of the cases, victims gave detailed accounts of an attack only to later say under questioning that the sex was consensual. In recanting, some said they had been afraid that they were pregnant or had contracted sexually transmitted diseases and did not know how to explain to boyfriends or parents. Many other cases involved children as victims.
One woman said she was high on drugs and that the encounter had been a hallucination; another was a prostitute who said she engaged in consensual sex but reported a rape after she was shortchanged by a customer.
The woman "stated she made the report because she was mad and tired of people thinking they can do what they want to people because of her situation being a prostitute," the report read.
But in many cases, detectives, in their own notes, appear to be pressuring victims by explaining the consequences of lying, promising to seek camera footage or cell phone records, and focusing on inconsistencies.
The Baltimore squad that investigates sexual assaults and child abuse comprises 50 detectives. One of them, Detective Anthony Faulk Jr., is responsible for one-fifth of the unfounded reports, shelving 14 cases last year, including the alleged attack in midtown. No other detective had more than six such cases, and some have none. Attempts to reach Faulk through the department and police union were unsuccessful.
In one instance, he wrote that a 15-year-old girl vomited from anxiety as he threatened to leave and retrieve crime-scene video to discern whether she was lying about having been raped. When he came back, she recanted, but refused to sign a statement. "She crossed her arm and held her lips together in a manner suggesting that she had nothing additional to say," the report reads. "This investigation is closed as unfounded."
Advocates say police, here and elsewhere, too often put the initial focus on the victim in sex crimes. Victims often were engaged in activity that they are ashamed of or believe their story has to fit a certain account and end up changing details, they say. When they are challenged or feel the police are not interested in helping, many will change their stories. Studies suggest the percentage of rape claims that are false is between 2 percent and 8 percent.
"One of the things we know is that victims do lie," said Gail Reid, the emergency room program manager for Turn Around, the victims group. "When the story doesn't fit together, all these red flags go off and police start a biased process of challenging their credibility."
Cities make changes
Rates of rapes and methods for classifying the crimes vary widely from place to place, but Baltimore's numbers stand out. It is one of only two cities in the country that records significantly more homicides than rapes, the other being New Orleans, where police are also facing questions. More than half the rape reports there have been classified as noncriminal "complaints," the Times-Picayune reported last year.
The rate of rapes per 100,000 people in Philadelphia and St. Louis – two cities that were found in recent years to be manipulating rape data and have made reforms – are more than double that of Baltimore.
"Unless there is an extraordinary crime prevention program going on in Baltimore that every other city would like to learn about, I think the numbers are very suspect," said Tracy of the Women's Law Project in Philadelphia.
Washington, San Diego, San Francisco and Atlanta are among cities with rates comparable to Baltimore's.
After The Sun sought a response from City Hall, Rawlings-Blake ordered an audit of unfounded complaints and an internal review of training and investigative practices. She met Friday with Bealefeld and Sheryl Goldstein, director of the mayor's office on criminal justice.
"I am deeply troubled to learn about the high number of unfounded rape complaints and the decline in reported rapes over the past decade," Rawlings-Blake said in a statement. "The data shows the critical need to immediately address the issue with a comprehensive review of investigative practices and responses."