By Justin Fenton, The Baltimore Sun
10:27 AM EDT, June 27, 2010
The 32-year-old woman was walking through a midtown alley last January when a man pressed a gun to her shoulder and told her, "Don't scream."
At the hospital, where she was treated for vaginal bleeding, the woman recounted being raped at gunpoint, in a vehicle with black leather seats. When it was over, her attacker told her to walk away slowly and not look back.
The police detective's report reflects the tone of his questioning in the hospital room: Why had she waited two hours to call police? Why didn't she flag down a squad car? Where was she coming from before she was assaulted? Who was she with? Frustrated, the woman retracted her statement and signed a new one saying that nothing had happened.
No longer a rape, the incident was now classified as "unfounded," police parlance for saying the victim was lying or they do not believe a crime occurred.
It's the type of change that happens dozens of times each year, and more often in Baltimore than any place else.
The Baltimore Police Department has for the past four years recorded the highest percentage of rape cases that officers conclude are false or baseless of any city in the country, according to The Baltimore Sun's review of FBI data.
More than 30 percent of the cases investigated by detectives each year are deemed unfounded, five times the national average. Only Louisville and Pittsburgh have reported similar numbers in the recent past, and the number of unfounded rape cases in those cities dropped after police implemented new classification procedures.
The problem in Baltimore may go deeper.
In 4 of 10 emergency calls to police involving allegations of rape, officers conclude that there is no need for a further review, so the case never makes it to detectives — a proportion that experts say is disturbingly high.
The increase in unfounded cases comes as the number of rapes reported by Baltimore police has plunged —from 684 in 1995 to 158 last year, a decline of nearly 80 percent. Nationally, FBI reports indicate that rapes have fallen 8 percent over the same period.
Advocates who work with rape victims and experts who have reviewed police figures in other cities say they are concerned about Baltimore's statistics. They worry that investigative tactics used by police might distort the scope of the problem and discourage victims from coming forward.
They say Baltimore police have expressed a commitment to working with medical providers and victims groups, and they praise the efforts of many detectives. Still, women continue to report that they are interrogated by detectives, sometimes questioned in the emergency room or threatened with being hooked up to lie detectors.
Overall, say those who have reviewed the findings, the numbers just don't add up.
"There's nothing that we see in our work that makes a [more than] two-thirds drop in the number of sexual assaults and rapes in Baltimore make any sense, on any planet," said Rosalyn Branson, executive director of Turn Around, a Towson-based group for victims of sexual assault and domestic violence.
Baltimore's "excessively high unfounded rate with such a small number of rapes reported in the first place" should merit a look from the FBI, said Carol E. Tracy, who works with a nonprofit that has been reviewing rape reports for Philadelphia police for a decade. In that city, the department had been systematically miscounting sexual crimes.
Current and former sex offense detectives in Baltimore defended their investigations. Part of their mission, they say, involves rooting out illegitimate complaints that in the past would result in wasted effort and false arrests.
Many reports of rape are made for "ill gain, in order to gain assistance or cover up not coming home," said one of the commanders of the unit, Lt. Thomas Uzarowski, in a March interview.
"The bottom line is, the case is only unfounded when the investigative facts prove the crime did not occur," said Uzarowski, who retired from the department this month. "It's not an opinion. It's not anything other than where the facts fall."
While Police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III and other top officials declined requests for interviews, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake ordered an audit of police procedures and statistics last week after The Baltimore Sun contacted her aides about these findings.
'Victims do lie'
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.
Reports reviewed by The Sun were redacted to remove information about victims, witnesses and locations of the crimes. The omissions made it difficult to verify the police account and to learn whether the victims agreed with the officer's decision.
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."
Some cities experiencing high numbers of unsubstantiated rape reports have also been troubled by the statistics and changed reporting practices to avoid wiping reports off the books.
Sgt. Larry Scirotto said that when he took over the Pittsburgh Police Department's sex offense unit two years ago, many cases in which the victim recanted or didn't want to move forward were being marked unfounded, meaning the incident did not happen.
Scirotto said that was the wrong approach in a city that for years was, along with Baltimore, leading the nation in the percentage of police reports labeled unfounded.
He changed the procedures so those cases would be tagged "cleared by exception," a designation that keeps the incident counted among the city's crime totals but allows detectives to focus resources on other cases. The case can be revisited if the victim decides – whether through counseling or a change of heart – to pursue charges later.
"When you classify a crime as unfounded, it says you didn't believe the victim, or that we determined a crime didn't occur to begin with," Scirotto said. "I'm not concerned with the statistics. I'm concerned about being able to prosecute at a later time."
Interviews with advocates and victims, and a review of reports requested under a Public Information Act request, reveal an attitude of distrust by police toward victims and a reflex to dismiss rape reports both in the field and after investigating.
Lauren — who did not want her last name used to protect her privacy — believed that she might have been sexually assaulted last year after a night of drinking with friends. She drove to Mercy Hospital to get examined and reluctantly agreed to speak to a detective.
The initial officer listened and was comforting, she said, but a detective from the sex crimes unit immediately started an interrogation.
"He was lecturing me on the justice system and was giving me lectures about drinking," she said. "He was also questioning me about, 'Do you have a boyfriend? Does your boyfriend know about this? Sometimes people make up this stuff because they made a mistake. Just because you didn't remember everything, doesn't mean you didn't want something to happen.'"
No report was taken to document Lauren's concerns. Years ago, that might have happened, too, in Louisville, another city that once rivaled Baltimore's rape statistics. But now, Louisville investigators say, such a case would result in a police report and a classification of "unsubstantiated," which allows detectives to focus resources elsewhere.
Sgt. Andy Abbott said the Kentucky department has recently been using the in-house classification of "unsubstantiated" to keep cases open but put them on the back burner when necessary. Because of that change and others, the percentage of Louisville's unfounded cases has dropped and the number of reported rapes has increased by 17 percent.
"Unsubstantiated means there's a possibility a crime may have occurred, but we don't have enough to prove one way or the other," Abbott said.
Police: Investigations improve
For years, Baltimore's percentage of rape allegations labeled as unfounded was in line with the national average. But by 1998, the rate had doubled from its longtime average. Concern arose in 2003, and the Baltimore Police Department undertook an audit that found it had under-reported rapes by 15 percent.
By the next year, when Commissioner Leonard D. Hamm took over the department, the percentage of unfounded reports had doubled again and increased to a high of 37.6 in 2006. It hasn't fallen below 29 percent since, even as reported rapes continue to fall. Police could not explain the increase.
A review of FBI data from across the country shows significant disparities in rates of unfounded rapes. Though most have a percentage in the single digits, some cities, including New York and Cleveland, report zero – a number that experts say is just as eyebrow-raising as Baltimore's high rate. The FBI does little to monitor the accuracy of reporting.
"Why is it that women in the greater Baltimore area are more disposed to lying about sexual assault than anyplace else in America?" asked Branson of Turn Around. "Is it in the water? What exactly would make us the ones most likely to tell a story about being sexually assaulted?"
Uzarowski, who spent 35 years with the Police Department, said sex crimes investigations have come a long way. When he started, there was no specialized unit.
Officers scrutinize data more closely and with greater urgency, he said. A commander retrieves sex offense calls and checks to make sure they have been assigned to detectives. If not, "that's where we backtrack and find out whether there was no one on the scene, or was not anything suspicious, or a vacant building or a false call," Uzarowski said.
He and Lt. Jon Foster both said they were pleased at the results of a recent audit of last year's numbers.
"We probably have some of the best investigators around, and as such, I think we get to the facts," he said. "I really think that the protocols we have in place are some of the best."
Still, a significant number of claims don't make it to detectives.
Calls handled on the streets
Department statistics show that about 40 percent of the 911 calls involving rape allegations each year are determined not to have merit or result in reports not being taken at the scene. For most of those calls, there is no documentation of why they were handled in that way, officials say.
"That's a huge, huge number," said Joanne Archambault, a longtime San Diego sex crimes investigator who consults with major police departments and reviewed documents provided by The Sun. "They're not supposed to be unfounding these in the field."
Last year, there were a handful of publicized incidents in Baltimore in which women alleging rape said police failed to take a report. Three officers were suspended in September after failing to take a report from a woman in Northwest Baltimore. Police were also investigating an incident in which a 24-year-old nursing assistant said officers drove away and later ripped up a report after she told them that a man had raped her.
The department has received an average of about 900 calls alleging rapes or attempted rapes each year since 2003, with reports written in about 540 — or 60 percent — of those instances, according to records provided by the department.
A spreadsheet provided by the department showed that in about 50 calls each year, officers gave reasons for not taking reports, such as being unable to locate the victim or not being able to find the address.
But about 300 calls each year on average were more broadly dismissed, with designations such as "no police service necessary," or "complaint abated." The most prevalent option has been to simply mark them "unfounded," which officials say has been on the decline but is still troubling.
"Patrol [officers] ought to be bringing in the specialized units," said Adam Rosenberg, director of the Baltimore Child Abuse Center and a former city sex offense prosecutor. "They can't be making snap judgments out there. That's what those units are there for."
Deborah Holbrook administers the Sexual Assault Forensic Exam program at Mercy Hospital, which treats all city and county rape victims. As part of a task force of sexual assault responders, she said she has worked with police to better educate officers at district roll calls, including tips on preservation of evidence and how to interact with victims. Though she acknowledges that she is involved only in the medical aspect, she gives police high marks and said she wasn't aware of any concerns.
"We've been getting back to basics, retraining everybody, making sure everybody is understanding the rules," Holbrook said. "We don't have any big issues on our plate."
Many women who report attacks are less concerned with statistics than with receiving respect and compassion from police.
On the morning of Oct. 25, Danielle Mascioli was asleep with her girlfriend in their Linden Avenue apartment when the bedroom light went on. A masked man was standing at the foot of the bed, holding a knife. He began to tie Mascioli with a hairdryer cord and blindfold her.
Mascioli said the man took her aside and began to take off her shirt. Suddenly, her girlfriend ran from the room yelling and began knocking on neighbors' doors. The man fled.
In the report, police describe the incident as an attempted sex offense, and say the case was relayed to the sex offense unit and assigned to a detective — Anthony Faulk Jr., the detective with the high number of dismissed cases. The incident was publicized by police amid a string of rapes and attacks that occurred about the same time, mainly in East Baltimore.
But the report classifies the incident as an aggravated assault rather than a sex offense. And in a subsequent encounter, she said, Faulk was rude and dismissive. She hasn't heard from him since, and doesn't particularly want to see him.
"This was such a life-changing event for me, and he didn't even care," she said. "Making victims feel safe is part of his job, and that part of the job description was completely out of the window.
"I really didn't do anything," she said. "It wasn't my fault."
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