Efforts by the Occupy Baltimore protest group to evolve into a self-contained, self-governing community have erupted into controversy with the distribution of a pamphlet that victim advocates and health workers fear discourages victims of sexual assaults from contacting police.
The pamphlet says that members of the protest group who believe they are victims or who suspect sexual abuse "are encouraged to immediately report the incident to the Security Committee," which will investigate and "supply the abuser with counseling resources."
The directive also says, in part, "Though we do not encourage the involvement of the police in our community, the survivor has every right, and the support of Occupy Baltimore, to report the abuse to the appropriate authorities."
Despite this caveat, the heads of three rape crisis centers and a nurse who runs the forensic division at Mercy Medical Center called the message about not involving police dangerous. They said it contains erroneous information that could undermine efforts to convince victims to properly report crimes and get the counseling they need.
"It might actually passively prevent someone from seeking justice," said Jacqueline Robarge, the executive director of Power Inside, a nonprofit support group that helps women who have been victimized.
The hodgepodge of anti-establishment activists who have erected a tent city at the Inner Harbor as part of the broader Occupy Wall Street movement are trying to develop their own rules of conduct, developed through committees and approved by a general assembly.
"I understand that they want to transform themselves," Robarge said. "But they have to do that in the context of our culture and community. … We're talking about people's lives here."
The "security statement" appears to be one of several attempts to govern what the memo calls "our newly forming, delicate yet strong community."
A spokeswoman, Jessica Lewis, a 31-year-old publicist, said the statement "in no way discourages people to contact the police." But she said Occupy Baltimore, now entering its third week, is "trying to be a self-contained community and deal with conflicts internally as much as possible."
Police in Cleveland said a 19-year-old woman was raped at an Occupy protest there, and authorities in Oakland and in Seattle have reported sexual assaults and incidents of indecent exposure.
Lewis said there have been no reports of sexual assaults or rapes at the Baltimore protest site. But she said that members of the "security committee" have mediated several disputes involving allegations of sexual harassment.
City police have reported no arrests of protesters, or any crime involving members of the group. A spokesman declined to criticize the group's pamphlet. "The Baltimore Police Department is committed to the utmost level of service and encourages all victims of all crimes to report them," said Det.Kevin Brown.
The memo was approved by the security committee and put before the general assembly. No vote was taken, but Lewis said it was essentially approved for distribution when no objections were raised. It was first posted publicly by a conservative blogger on biggovernment.com; a Baltimore Sun reporter picked up a copy from the protest site on Wednesday afternoon.
The author of the memo, 26-year-old Melissa "Koala" Largess, said she only wanted to let victims know that there are alternative ways of dealing with an attacker, though she said she had once been involved in an abusive relationship and needed the police's help.
Largess said she wanted "the person who harmed me to work on issues and get the help needed to be a functioning member of society."
"There are a lot of ways people can deal with assault and conflict," she said. "The way we all know is to make someone wrong and punish them instead of work with them to correct their behavior."
Largess said that as a victim, she found support groups "confining" but, she stressed, "I'm not against people taking the steps they feel they need to stay safe. … From my own perspective and experience, I understand the necessity of calling police."
But rape crisis counselors say the tone of Largess' memo undermines her own statements. While the directive does say the movement supports involving police if the victim wants, it also says the "security committee" will investigate allegations and will "work to supply the abuser with counseling resources to deal with their issues."
The memorandum notes that if a victim wants to contact police, they must do so within 72 hours to preserve evidence.
That advice is wrong, said Debra S. Holbrook, a nurse who directs the forensic lab at Mercy, the city's premier hospital for dealing with victims of sexual assault. She said evidence can be preserved for 120 hours after an attack.
Holbrook noted that Mercy allows victims to get help without involving police. People can seek treatment at the hospital and request that staff not contact law enforcement. The hospital preserves files and forensic evidence for up to a year, allowing the victim a chance to reconsider and still pursue a criminal case.
The Occupy memo comes just as city police and crisis centers have forged new partnerships in an effort to convince reluctant victims to come forward — steps taken after The Baltimore Sun reported that police had for years dismissed many rape complaints as "unfounded."
The centers, such as Power Inside and TurnAround Inc., have professional counselors who can contact police on behalf of victims and even conduct interviews if victims are afraid of detectives. The heads of those centers expressed concern that Occupy Baltimore lacks those resources.
"This is not their area of expertise," said Rosalyn Branson, the executive director of TurnAround Inc. She said that the Occupy Baltimore flier contains no phone numbers for counselors or police hotlines set up to help victims.
"We've been working for the last two years to encourage reporting and for victims to use our services," Branson said. Referring to the protest memo, she said, "This does neither."
Branson and Robarge said there are models of so-called "restorative justice," which offers mediation and other ways to resolve criminal cases without involving the justice system. But they said outcomes are subject to debate and rarely have been successful when dealing with sex crimes.
"Attackers are most exclusively serial," Branson said. "I do not know how you deal with that without the involvement of law enforcement."