By Justin Fenton, The Baltimore Sun
9:51 PM EST, December 1, 2010
More than half of nearly 100 rape reports that Baltimore Police decided were false or baseless have been reclassified as rapes or other sex crimes, according to an audit presented Wednesday to a City Council panel.
The findings came from a review prompted by a Baltimore Sun analysis that exposed flaws in the way police handled sex offense investigations. Baltimore has long led the nation in the proportion of rape reports classified as "unfounded" — meaning the incident did not happen.
Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said the audit, along with other comprehensive changes in recent months, "has forever changed and improved the way sexual assault cases are investigated in Baltimore, ensuring that all victims of sexual assault have their complaints investigated fully and are treated with dignity and respect."
Rawlings-Blake asked the panel in late June to evaluate recent reports of rape and sexual crimes. The Sexual Assault Response Team, which includes police, prosecutors and victim advocates, reviewed 98 rape investigations classified as unfounded between January 2009 and August 2010. It found that 52 should be considered rapes or other sex crimes.
Those cases and others will get a fresh look from new detectives, but officials stressed that the re-classifications have yet to produce arrests.
The audit constituted one piece of the city's rape-reporting overhaul. Police instituted new policies, making sure all sexual-assault reports were referred to a specialized unit and could not be dismissed on the scene. Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III also selected a new commander for the sex offense unit, sent detectives to training and obtained grant money to beef up investigations. A U.S. Senate subcommittee convened a hearing on the topic.
Bealefeld called the steps "the beginning" of an improved process. "I do not view this as … the end of the mission," he told a City Council committee reviewing the findings. "I simply view this as a good start."
Statistics indicate that the new policies are having an impact.
Reported rapes in Baltimore had been on the decline for years, dropping at a much faster rate than the national average and fueling skepticism among critics and victim advocates. Through the first half of 2010, rape reports had declined by 15 percent, compared with the same period a year earlier.
But as of Nov. 1, with the changes in effect, rape reports were up 48 percent compared with the same time last year, police figures show. Those figures do not yet include the cases the review team said should be reclassified.
Advocates say that a long-standing police culture that resulted in aggressive questioning of those making rape reports — sometimes leading them to recant their accounts in frustration — is changing.
"For me, the biggest thing is the shift in attitude toward an appreciation that the process needs to be more victim-centered," said Gail Reid, director of victim services for Turn Around, a Towson-based group that works with victims of sexual assaults. "That process requires collaboration, and I don't think it's an easy thing to do. We have a lot of work ahead of us."
Baltimore officials looked to cities that had grappled with similar problems, visiting Philadelphia, where a women's group continues to review sex crimes after major flaws were uncovered in the late 1990s.
The review of unfounded cases paired sex-offense detectives with victim advocates from Turn Around. They tracked down victims and offered to reinvestigate cases, while members of the response team pored over case files and discussed whether the case had been properly classified.
"When there was disagreement among members, the recommendation was made to reopen the case," said Col. Dean Palmere, the Police Department's chief of detectives.
Of the 98 rape claims reviewed, 26 cases were re-classified as rapes or attempted rapes, with 26 others reclassified as sex offenses or possible sex offenses.
Forty-four of the cases had been properly classified as false, officials said, and two were downgraded from rapes to assaults.
Members of the team reviewed some 911 calls for sex crimes, as well as a random sampling of other sex offenses. Those cases turned up additional crimes that had been improperly classified.
In all, 135 cases were reviewed, with 71 reclassified, including the 28 that will now be considered rapes. Sixty-four were found to have been properly labeled "unfounded."
Calls to a hot line established by the city and staffed by Turn Around revealed additional cases that are now being investigated by detectives.
Bealefeld, who has called the problems with the city's sex offense investigations a "crisis," said the problems were isolated to that unit and developed over time. He said citizens should not fear that similar problems exist elsewhere in the department.
"Some of the things that they were doing wrong are really germane, specifically, to that field of focus," Bealefeld said. Sex offense investigations "devolved into poor practices over an extended period of time," he said.
Officials are getting closer to hiring a full-time coordinator of the sexual assault response team, who will chair regular meetings and continue audits of unfounded cases. An outreach campaign is also in the works.
Deputy Major Clifton McWhite, the new head of the city's sex offense unit, said he is revamping the unit and adding detectives. He said he plans to increase the number of supervisors from three to four, and bolster the ranks of detectives to 21, from 15.
More female officers have been brought into the unit as well, and detectives have moved away from their old interview techniques, McWhite said. Elizabeth Embry, a city official who has overseen much of the team's work, said rape cases can no longer be dismissed solely if a victim recants.
Bealefeld said he anticipates greater collaboration with the city state's attorney's office under incoming prosecutor Gregg Bernstein, whom Bealefeld backed in the election. Bernstein is married to Sheryl Goldstein, the director of the Mayor's Office on Criminal Justice, who played a critical role in the reforms.
City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young said he was pleased with the changes. "I'm quite sure our citizens are really going to have some confidence that they will get some things resolved with these cases."
By the numbers
•Unfounded rape cases reviewed: 98
•Additional unfounded sexual assault cases reviewed: 37
•Total cases reviewed: 135
•Total number of rape and assault cases reclassified as valid: 71 (includes 28 rapes)
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