Baltimore police have tapped a former homicide detective and commander of the Western District to oversee reforms in the beleaguered sex offense unit.

Deputy Major Clifton McWhite was informed of the appointment Wednesday morning, ending a three-month search to fill a vacant position overseeing special investigations, which includes child abuse, sex offense, financial fraud, missing persons, and the citywide robbery and pawnshop units.

McWhite will assume command of the sex offense unit three months after police began making changes in response to a report in The Baltimore Sun that showed Baltimore led the country in the number of rapes deemed "unfounded" by officers. While the number of reported rapes plummeted, police were failing to take reports or were discarding a high number of claims as "false of baseless."

"It's imperative that we entrust command of the Special Investigations Section to a proven leader who is capable of improving the quality of service we provide to the people of Baltimore," Police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III said in a statement. "Deputy Major McWhite is a true professional who will work closely with advocacy organizations and partners to identify crucial needs and restore much needed integrity, competence and efficiency to the unit."

Police thought they had the position filled in July, when Maj. Scott Bloodsworth, the commander of the Southern District, was asked to move downtown and head the unit. But Bloodsworth opted to retire, and police have been searching for a replacement since.

McWhite doesn't have experience with sex offense investigations, and officials believe that may be a plus given the past problems in the unit. But victims and advocacy groups had expressed concerns this summer that many officers did not have enough understanding about the intricacies of sex offense investigations, leading them to use tactics that too often turned fact-gathering into interrogations of accusers.

Joanne Archambault, a retired sex crimes investigator and consultant who has been asked by Baltimore police officials to train detectives, said a commander with experience exclusively in violent crime investigations is not typically prepared to assume oversight of sex offense cases.

But, she said, "you don't have to have a lot of expertise to be open to the issues. I've always said, 'Give me a person with a heart and passion, and I'll teach them,'" Archambault said.

Chief department spokesman Anthony Guglielmi said McWhite had known he was a finalist for the position and was informed of the new assignment Wednesday morning during a meeting with Bealefeld. The department would not make him available for an interview.

"The commissioner wants him focused on setting priorities for his unit," Guglielmi said.

Robert Cherry, the president of the city police union, worked with McWhite when they were homicide detectives and praised his appointment.

"Major McWhite is an intelligent, rational and balanced police officer," Cherry said. "Detectives and patrol officers who have worked for him respect his decision making and commitment to the job. He is a good choice to lead the Sex Offense Unit and will complement the already hard working and dedicated detectives assigned to that unit."

While searching for a replacement, police changed protocols for rape investigations, sent detectives to training and began an extensive review to determine if cases marked as "unfounded" since 2009 were properly classified.

No detectives have been moved from the unit, but that could change as McWhite begins his evaluation.

McWhite is a 15-year veteran whose past work includes investigating violent crimes and drugs. In the past year he has jumped from lieutenant to deputy major of the Western District.

He will report directly to the head of the Criminal Investigations Division, Col. Dean Palmere.

Taking McWhite's spot in the Western District will be Lester Rutherford, a 23-year veteran, who moves from the tactical unit.

justin.fenton@baltsun.com

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