City to gather past rape reports, claims of mistreatment through new hot line

City leaders are establishing a hot line for victims who believe their reports of rape or sexual assault were not investigated fully by police.

Officials announced Tuesday that the staff of the victim advocates group Turnaround Inc. will partner with the city to operate the rape and sexual assault hot line. The announcement comes after a Baltimore Sun investigation which revealed that, based on FBI crime data, Baltimore has logged a higher percentage of rape cases that officers deem false or baseless than any other U.S. city.

Beginning at 9 a.m. Wednesday, victims of sexual assault can call the hot line — 443-279-0379 — and request to simply share their stories, have their cases reviewed by the audit committee, request support services, or file new reports. Victims are also encouraged to use the hot line to report any mistreatment they experienced during their initial reports of sexual assault.

"It will give victims a chance to tell their stories, and it will give us a chance to connect with victims that we haven't been able to connect with services," said Roslyn Branson, executive director of Turnaround. "It does everything we're here to do."

Branson said her organization — which over 30 years has assisted more than 11,000 victims a year with victim services — jumped at the chance to offer a phone line and staff members to provide its service and staff to the city free of charge.

She said she and her staff and volunteers will prepare as much as possible, though they can't anticipate how many calls may come in to the hot line. Branson said that counselors will take a victim-centric approach in their counsel, allowing victims to give as much information as they want: "they get to set the tone at the beginning, and they get to change their minds at the end."

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and Police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III announced the creation of the hot line during a news conference Tuesday, part of a series of responses to the numbers reported by The Sun on Sunday.

The city's statistics show that one-third of rape cases investigated by detectives are deemed "unfounded" — five times the national average. And four out of 10 emergency calls involving allegations of rape are dismissed even before being forwarded to a detective.

"The data shows the critical need to immediately address this issue with a comprehensive review of the investigative practices and responses," Rawlings-Blake said, adding that the city should not exacerbate the national problem of under-reporting of sexual assaults by women.

"No victim should ever feel that they have to suffer in silence," Rawlings-Blake said. "This is a national problem. And in Baltimore, we address problems with actions."

Upon learning of the reports, Rawlings-Blake called for an audit of every unfounded report reflected in the statistics, an endeavor led by Sheryl Goldstein, Rawlings-Blake's director of criminal justice. Col. Dean M. Palmere, chief of criminal investigations for the Police Department, will assist Goldstein in leading the audit.

On July 8, a Sexual Assault Review Team — a group composed of representatives from all facets of public safety — will convene to determine the depth and scope of the audit, which city officials said will include a review of statistics, rape reports, and possibly reaching out to victims, officials said.

At the announcement on Tuesday, Bealefeld lauded the hot line as an avenue to rebuilding public trust in future investigative practices. "It's critically important that we're focused on moving forward," he said. "But we can't do that without rebuilding the confidence and make sure we do right by people who were victims in the past."

Dave Thomas, program administrator for the Domestic Violence Education Program at the Johns Hopkins University and an expert on the issue of violence against women, said the hot line could yield substantial results because victims will be speaking with people experienced in trauma.

"There's going to be mistrust of law enforcement and of the system, and having to relive all of that, for some of them is going to be overwhelming," he said. "I think you're definitely going to have people call, but anyone who is looking at this needs to have a depth of knowledge about trauma."

The hot line will run from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Friday except holidays, Branson said. It will not operate on July 5.

She said that her organization's task is an "open commitment" and that the hot line will stay open as long as victims keep calling.

In 1974, city officials suggested a hot line manned by a police detective on which victims could report sexual assaults and rapes. According to Baltimore Sun reports from that time, women's groups opposed it, saying that victims experienced degradation from police and prosecutors.

Branson said she thought that city leaders partnering with an outside agency experienced in dealing with trauma victims showed signs of commitment to systemic changes in reporting sexual abuse.

"We think it's an important part of this whole process," Branson said. "It will give folks a voice that didn't have one."

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