A group created in 2010 to audit sexual-assault investigations in Baltimore has been hindered for more than a year because the city curbed its oversight powers, advocates said in the wake of a Justice Department report that found continuing problems in the police sex offense unit.
The scathing report, released Wednesday, determined that the Police Department's response to sexual assault has been "overall, grossly inadequate," with detectives quick to disregard claims and failing to follow up on leads or test evidence.
Those were problems the city had sought to correct when it created the Sexual Assault Response Team (SART) after an investigation by The Baltimore Sun found police were discarding rape complaints at the highest rate in the country. The team, made up of advocates, a forensic nurse, police and prosecutors, audited police work to identify shortcomings.
Advocates and the former coordinator of SART say the city has revoked its access to review open cases and has been locked in fruitless negotiations with the panel on a new operating agreement. There is currently no page on the city website for the team or a contact phone number.
Lisae Jordan, executive director of the Maryland Coalition Against Sexual Assault and a member of SART, said the group's "effectiveness has diminished." Rosalyn Branson of the advocacy group TurnAround felt more strongly — that it has "ceased to function."
Others say the team still works well. Debra Holbrook, Mercy Hospital's director of forensic nursing, said that there should be a limit on what kind of information is shared and that few concerns have been raised at meetings.
"I don't have a problem with the way anything is running right now, or my voice would be one of the loudest at the table," said Holbrook, who had not yet read the Justice Department report.
Capt. Steve Hohman, who leads the Police Department's sex offense unit, said the review team has been provided everything that it has asked for.
"They request information for SART meetings and our audits, and that information is provided," Hohman said Thursday. "If SART collectively wants to look at a different type of case or information, we can certainly work to facilitate that in as much as we don't disclose information that isn't allowed."
Hohman said the Police Department was still assessing the Justice Department findings but said he believes many of the deficiencies stem from a poor case management system. He said detectives are putting in more effort than is outlined in the report, but "we need to be better at documenting it."
Asked about SART, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake's office issued a statement that while some members "may have varying perspectives on the effectiveness of our collective work, the majority is on the same page and committed to protecting the interests and advocating for those who experience sexual assault."
Before the reforms were put in place, The Sun investigation found that Baltimore police regularly classified more than 30 percent of rape claims as unfounded, the highest rate in the country and five times the national average.
While the number of "unfounded" cases since then dropped to 9.6 percent, the Department of Justice report questioned whether that masked a continuing problem.
Information reviewed by the federal investigators "suggests that the BPD is keeping the majority of its rape cases in an 'open' status, thus drastically reducing the rate of its rape cases closed as 'unfounded' and creating the illusion of having made meaningful reforms to its procedures for identifying and classifying sexual assaults," the report said.
Jordan said the Baltimore Police Department revoked the team's access to notes and information on open cases, citing vague legal concerns.
"The process is that we are not auditing ongoing investigations," Jordan said. "So by failing to close cases, what they're doing is immunizing those cases from scrutiny."
The DOJ did have access to such case files and found a host of problems, which were included in its report. Among them:
•Detectives requested forensic testing of rape kits in fewer than one in five cases.
•They rarely, if ever, seek to identify or interview suspects or witnesses, even in cases where they are clearly identified by the woman reporting the assault. They also did not attempt to review surveillance camera footage.
•Police failed to complete basic paperwork for investigations or document investigative efforts. Supervisory review forms and contact logs for prosecutors were rarely filled out or contained little information.
•Investigators said when women who had reported sexual assault were interviewed, they were asked questions such as "Why are you messing this guy's life up?" and police were skeptical of delays in reporting a crime.
Heather Brantner, the original SART coordinator, was let go from her position last year. She said access to case notes was crucial, with advocates spotting and bringing potential problems to the attention of police supervisors.
After the access was revoked, "you had no substantial, meaningful case review or audit. The number of cases that the SART audit team was able to review kept getting less and less and less."
Jordan said city officials were "hiding" behind the claim of legal concerns to withhold information.
"As a lawyer, I'd like to see what the impediments are," she said, noting that counterparts in Philadelphia continue to have such access. "My organization spends many hours of every day changing laws and public policy to make them better for sexual-assault survivors. If there's a law that needs changing, I'm happy to help change it."
Holbrook, Mercy's forensic nurse, said some members of the SART team were being unrealistic about how some cases were investigated.
"What do people want?" she said. "I don't know what is expected of [investigators] when you've got nothing to go on, if you've got the tape that shows something other than what someone is saying, or witnesses saying a very different account."
Adam Rosenberg, director of the Baltimore Child Abuse Center and member of SART, criticized TurnAround for being unable to work with other members of the team, who he said work well together.
"The problem at its core is an inability for the rest of the SART to adequately work with and trust TurnAround," Rosenberg said.
Holbrook and Rosenberg did agree with other advocates' concerns about police manpower. They say the number of detectives in the sex offense unit dropped from about 18 to nine, a figure the Police Department confirmed. The commander of the unit has changed several times over the years, leading to a constant adjustment period.
Brantner said she believes police were taking some of their cues from prosecutors who expressed reluctance to pursue cases in court.
The DOJ's report includes an exchange between an unnamed prosecutor and an unnamed detective in which the prosecutor said he or she was "not excited" about pursuing a case because the "victim seems like a conniving little whore." The state's attorney's office initially said it didn't know who made the comment, but Thursday said it would look into the matter.
"I believe they owe survivors a message that they will never have to engage with that human," Branson said.
Overall, Branson said the DOJ report highlights a number of shocking incidents in which those involved remain anonymous with no promise of accountability. She cited a case in which a woman was pulled over for having a broken headlight and was subjected to a strip search, including an anal cavity search, on a public street.
"That person's been sexually assaulted," Branson said. "I didn't hear anything about anybody looking for who did that, any consequences or offering any help for the survivors. … [The report] opened a door and put a road map for what change looks like, but it doesn't give everyone who did these things a pass."