Group to explore city rape reports

A group of Baltimore government and law enforcement representatives plans to conduct a systematic review of rape reports that have been deemed "unfounded" by police investigators, in response to news reports showing the city leads the nation in such cases, officials said Monday.

Part of a team created a year ago to investigate responses to sex crimes, the group was told by Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake to audit the city's procedures and statistics related to rape cases after a Baltimore Sun article Sunday pointed out the high rate of unfounded cases. Monday, the group's leader said it will also look at individual rape cases to explore why they were deemed unfounded.

The group, composed of officials from the Police Department, prosecutors' office, Mercy Hospital and the victims advocacy group Turnaround Inc., will hold its first meeting on the subject July 8.

A police spokesman said yesterday that Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III supports an exhaustive review.

"The commissioner wants to dig deep," said department spokesman Anthony Guglielmi. "We have to work hard to restore public trust in the fact that we're going to investigate these rapes."

Meanwhile, a spokeswoman for the city State's Attorney's Office said statistics showing a high number of unfounded rape cases points to a longstanding struggle between the Police Department and the prosecutor's office about who has "charging rights" in sexual abuse cases. With the exception of cases against police officers and teachers, the Baltimore's state's attorney office does not get involved until charges are filed by officers or detectives.

Spokeswoman Marty Burns said the State's Attorney's Office is currently handling at least one rape case that was initially deemed unfounded by police, but was pursued by prosecutors after they were approached by the victim.

"We have no way of knowing about these unfounded cases," Burns said. "This is something that creeps up periodically when someone shines a light."

Burns said nurses at Mercy Medical Center have shared concerns with the State's Attorney's Office of "strong-arm tactics" and coarse language from police while interviewing a victim.

"Most of these victims would not have the knowledge of how to contact a prosecutor," Burns said. "Most of the time, these cases are cloaked under the secrecy that is associated with law enforcement investigations."

For four years, Baltimore has logged a higher percentage of rape cases that officers call false or baseless than any other U.S. city, according to FBI crime data. Nearly one-third of rape cases investigated by city detectives are deemed "unfounded" — five times the national average. And four out of 10 emergency calls involving allegations of rape are dismissed before being forwarded to a detective for investigation.

Leading the city's review of rape cases is the mayor's director of criminal justice, Sheryl Goldstein, who will steer the team with assistance from Col. Dean M. Palmere, chief of criminal investigations for the Police Department.

Goldstein said Monday that the team's first agenda item next week will be to "come up with an action plan" to determine the scope and depth of the investigation and audit, which will be based largely on a review of reports, statistics and protocols for responding to emergency calls about sexual assault.

"I think a lot of people have a lot of good ideas and a lot of experience to bring to this," Goldstein said. "I think if we bring all of these together, we can really have the best results for the citizens and victims in Baltimore — and that's really what we all want."

Sheldon F. Greenberg, a former Howard County police officer who heads the Johns Hopkins Division of Public Safety Leadership, which trains police officers to be law enforcement executives, said pressure on police to downgrade crime can be immense.

"The problem is national, not just in Baltimore," he said. "Police officials have difficulties defining the value of what their people do on a day-to-day basis other than through statistics. They give the politicians what they want — statistics as a way of measuring success."

Guglielmi noted that the head of the Police Department's sexual assault unit, Lt. Thomas Uzarowski, retired this month, before The Sun's article appeared. A search is under way for his replacement. Guglielmi said he's not sure whether the police commissioner will wait until the audit is completed to name a replacement, but he said the unit will be scrutinized to ensure the right personnel are in place in the 50-detective unit.

Also, the audit could include a review of rape cases handled by patrol officers. Some reported rapes were found to have been canceled before detectives got involved, as well as by detectives themselves. Auditors will pull reports and case files, and Guglielmi said, "maybe talk to women."

"This is going to take some time if we want to do it right," Guglielmi said, adding significant changes or personnel moves won't be made "until the data comes out."

Council members offered their initial reactions to the city's rape statistics Monday, some saying they look forward to seeing the results of the investigation to draw better conclusions about the issue.

Councilman James B. Kraft, who heads the council's public safety and health committee, said he believed there were many layers to the problem of the apparent lack of rape reporting. He said he would like to see if the high number of rape cases thrown out is a "police problem or a prosecution problem."

"I think we have to get all of the players involved, not just the Police Department," Kraft said. "I don't think we can do a fair and accurate assessment without taking a look at both of them."

After the audit is complete, City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young said in a statement that he has asked that city council members further "examine police investigative practices."

Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke, who volunteered and sat on the board at the domestic abuse shelter House of Ruth in Maryland, said she was most disturbed by the revelations about detectives' alleged tactics during their investigations of rape cases.

She said she hopes that the audit will give police and the public a refresher course about what it means to be a victim.

"Women are already reluctant to make those reports," she said. "I know from experience that we have to make it easier, not more difficult, to overcome their fear and their shame to say, 'I'm a victim of rape. Help me.' "

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