By Justin Fenton, The Baltimore Sun
10:56 PM EDT, August 4, 2010
Baltimore's top prosecutor and City Council president called Wednesday for an outside agency to investigate rape complaints summarily dismissed by police detectives, saying that independent eyes are needed to ensure citizens' faith in the results.
Baltimore State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy and one of her top deputies testified at a City Council hearing that any review by city police and prosecutors — as proposed by a task force selected by Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake — would be akin to "evaluating our own work."
City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young said he "fully supported" an outside audit of cases highlighted by The Baltimore Sun.
He said an independent agency, possibly a police department from another jurisdiction, should conduct the review "if we're going to do a thorough audit, so the citizens of Baltimore won't think we as a city … did anything [improper] with these numbers."
Police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III and City Councilman James Kraft, chairman of the public safety and health committee, disagreed, saying the mayor's task force includes several outsiders, such as victims' advocates and a representative from Mercy Hospital. That group will review the information gathered by detectives and prosecutors and will make recommendations on the next steps, they said.
"It's clear that this group is independent," Kraft said in an interview.
The council hearing was called in response to a Baltimore Sun article that raised questions about the way allegations of rape are investigated in Baltimore. A Sun analysis showed that for at least five years, the city led the nation in the percentage of rape allegations that police found to be "false or baseless."
The review also found that four out of 10 calls to 911 over that time had not generated a police report in the first place, having been dismissed by detectives at the scene. Victims have reported being interrogated by detectives about their motives and truthfulness, while others said patrol officers ignored their allegations.
Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke praised the city and Police Department response so far, which has included creating a hot line for victims, changing policies and forming a task force to oversee wholesale changes in the way that sex crimes are investigated. Officials are pursuing grant money to improve case-management systems and outreach efforts to assist victims.
"I'm glad the Police Department has acknowledged it's a problem and needs to be solved," Clarke said.
Bealefeld, who has been unequivocal in accepting blame for the department, said patrol officers are no longer allowed to leave the scene of an alleged sexual assault without writing a report, putting the department in line with other agencies' best practices.
Detectives will be retrained, and he said the department would be "incredibly conservative" moving forward in how it handles such cases.
"We have failed sexual assault victims in Baltimore," Bealefeld said. "And we have an enormous amount of work to do with our partners to restore the public trust and confidence."
Much of the two-hour hearing focused on whether the approach to audit cases labeled as "unfounded" — those wiped from the department's crime statistics — would be sufficient.
Officials have said a team of four detectives and a sergeant, along with a representative from the state's attorney's office's sex offense unit, would scrutinize cases labeled as unfounded from the past 18 months.
Their complete findings would be referred to the city's Sexual Assault Response Team, a group that has been given a new mission by Rawlings-Blake. It includes representatives from Turnaround Inc., a victims' advocacy group; Mercy Medical Center, which conducts forensic examinations of rape victims; and the Maryland Coalition Against Sexual Assault.
A police spokesman said the detectives on the initial audit team come from outside the sex offense unit — from the intelligence, internal affairs, district detectives and child abuse units — and include two women. The sergeant leads the sex offense unit's cold-case squad, which pursues old cases and those involving DNA matches.
Jessamy, who according to a spokeswoman had not planned to attend the meeting, said prosecutors had not been consulted in instances where cases were shelved by detectives, though the head of her sex offense unit, Joanne Stanton, said there had been improved communications since the Sun article.
But she also protested that she was not involved in the current audit of cases, which other task force members had noted a day earlier and during the council hearing.
Deputy State's Attorney Cynthia Jones said that having city police and prosecutors participating in the review could pose a conflict of interest. Not only would investigators be evaluating their own work or that of colleagues, she said, but each had different objectives. Police judge cases on whether there is probable cause, while prosecutors look at whether the case is "viable" and has enough evidence to be prosecuted, she said.
Kraft said he feared that prosecutors were positioning themselves to criticize the review later.
"We have a history around here," Kraft said. "I do not want the state's attorney's office to come back and say, 'We told you so.' They've got to be all in or not in at all."
During the hearing, Kraft asked questions about how the prosecutor's office determined whether cases were viable. Afterward, he said his line of questioning stemmed from a belief that police officers' shelving cases might have been fueled in part by a belief that prosecutors would not try complicated cases.
"I think some of the officers, some of the detectives were frustrated," he said. "I don't want to start a fight in this case, because this issue is too important. But the frustration is that the state's attorney's office will not take a case unless they absolutely know they can win it."
Council members also sought to expand the membership of the review team, with Young asking that Kraft and a representative from the sheriff's office be included. Clarke requested that a representative from the city's Commission for Women be added.
A follow-up hearing was scheduled for Dec. 1.
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