Baltimore police redesign interview space to help comfort victims of sexual assault

New interview room for sexual assault survivors in Baltimore Police headquarters is very, very different

Victims of alleged sexual assaults who agreed to be interviewed at Baltimore police headquarters used to sit in a chair made of metal and plastic, across a plain table from a detective, in a stark-white room resembling those used for criminal interrogations.

Now, they may choose their own seat — a rocking chair, perhaps, or one made from plush fabric — in a room designed from top to bottom with the science of trauma, and how the brain and body best handle it, in mind.

Neutral wall paint, donated art, soft lighting and seating-in-the-round all were chosen to send the survivors a simple message, Police Commissioner Kevin Davis said Wednesday.

"This space tells them, 'We believe you, you're safe, and we're here to help you.'"

A waiting room for survivors and their family members was also redone, with books and blocks for children to play with, shawls for survivors to keep and a large piece of art made of various fabrics — considered a sensory comfort.

Lori Lickstein, coordinator of the Sexual Assault Recovery Team in the Mayor's Office of Criminal Justice, said she first conceptualized the transformation of the rooms a year ago.

"These rooms were designed to provide psychological and physical safety," she said. "These rooms are meant to not only help in giving control back to the victim, from top to bottom with grounding mindfulness. They are also to help the officers prevent vicarious trauma."

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said the rooms will help survivors feel more comfortable sharing information while strengthening police investigations — important in a city where few sexual assaults and rapes are solved, and police have been heavily criticized for how they handle such cases.

"It's common sense that better investigations will lead to higher clearance rates," Rawlings-Blake said. "You get better investigations when you get access to the best information, and the most detailed and accurate information."

Capt. Steve Hohman is commander of the department's Special Investigations Section, which investigates sexual assaults.

"It not only puts the survivor in a mind frame, it puts the detective and the investigator in a mind frame that is going to help facilitate that victim-centered, trauma-informed response and investigation," he said.

The new rooms — funded with donations from the nonprofit Mission 14 and members of the community — are the latest change in how the department approaches sexual assault cases since the release last month of a scathing report by the U.S. Department of Justice.

Justice Department investigators slammed the department for what they said was years of sloppy, careless responses to reports of sexual assault.

The Baltimore Sun reported in 2010 that city police were discarding rape complaints at the highest rate in the nation and five times the national average.

Officials created the Sexual Assault Recovery Team and began introducing reforms.

Six years later, the Justice Department found the department's handling of sexual assault cases remained deeply flawed. Justice investigators, who looked at the years from 2010 to 2015, said Baltimore police "persistently neglect" to test rape kits or gather forensic evidence, and often disregarded claims brought by sex workers, among other problems.

Police say they have taken several steps to address the failings of years past. Forensic investigators can now put information directly into detectives' case files, and supervisors have more oversight of detectives' case loads.

Officers responding to reports of sexual assault in the city may no longer "code out" such reports, or find them unfounded in the field. Now every such call must lead to a report.

Davis mentioned the Justice Department's findings on Wednesday. He said the new waiting and interview rooms are "one example — a tangible example — of something the Baltimore Police Department and the city is doing. We're not standing still."

Lickstein said the rooms are the first of their kind in the country. She called them a clear step forward.

"Everything is working toward calming the body and mind, because trauma stays in the body," she said.

Video recording equipment must be installed in the new interview room before it can be used. Officials said that will occur soon.

Detective Christopher Rivera, who investigates sexual assault cases for the department, said he was impressed by the new rooms and is certain they will help survivors and improve investigations.

"It does make the mindset change," he said. "You actually feel like you're sitting down in a home with someone," he said.

Survivors provide more information when they feel comfortable, he said, "and everyone feels more comfortable at home."

krector@baltsun.com

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