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Rethinking sexual assaults

Baltimore police haven't yet turned around a culture that played down complaints of sex crimes, intimidated victims and flat-out ignored most reports of rape. But the situation is much better than it was a year ago, when The Sun's Justin Fenton reported that Baltimore had one of the country's highest rates of rape and sexual assault complaints that were classified as unfounded.

Since then, the department has instituted procedures that have greatly increased the number of investigations and arrests in rape cases, even though it is clear that the new way of handling cases hasn't completely eliminated the mistrust in the community or the attitudes among some officers that fostered it.

For that reason, the advertising campaign the city announced it is undertaking this week, based on the idea that rape isn't the victim's fault, is important both for women who have been afraid to speak out and for the police officers who still may not have gotten the message.

To understand how difficult it is to change attitudes among police officers, it's important to realize that sexual assault is the most underreported of all crimes, not only in Baltimore but nationally, and that those attitudes are conditioned in many cases by the larger society's implicit tolerance of the exploitation of women and the violence perpetrated against them.

Women's advocates estimate that as many as 80 percent of all sexual assaults go unreported, often because the victims are too ashamed to admit what happened to them, or because they are fearful they will be victimized again by the criminal justice system. This leads to a self-perpetuating cycle that leaves abusers free to repeat their crimes again and again with new victims.

In Baltimore, the most frequent victims of sexual assaults are the city's most vulnerable women — particularly drug addicts, teenage runaways, prostitutes and the homeless. Predators target them because they believe police are unlikely to investigate their complaints and because society as a whole views them as outcasts and expendable. The lives of such women are an exhausting struggle against persistent poverty, haunting abuse and social isolation. Little wonder they have learned to distrust almost everyone, including the police.

A survey of clients at one of the city's women's counseling and support groups found that 81 percent of the women had been the victim of domestic violence at some point in their lives, while 76 percent said they had experienced a sexual assault or rape. More than 60 percent of the women had been sexually abused as children, and a quarter of them were coerced or forced into working as prostitutes before reaching the age of 18. Nearly all of these crimes went unreported, even though they clearly had devastating emotional, physical and psychological consequences for the women involved.

But the problem in Baltimore is not limited to those who are already marginalized by society. Overly aggressive police questioning of those who report sexual assaults has too often been enough to make women feel as if they are suspects, not victims.

Baltimore's campaign aims to remove the stigma these women suffer as a result of what for many of them has been a lifetime of violence and abuse. When police refuse to credit their complaints of rape or sexual assault — or worse, haul the victims off to jail for creating a public nuisance — they merely compound the tragedy of society's refusal to acknowledge the larger issue of violence against women and its causes. What is needed is a fundamental change in attitudes among both the police and the public that demean women in general, and poor women in particular.

That won't happen overnight. But to their credit, Baltimore officials, including Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and Police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III, are working on it. By emphasizing those issues through better police training and public information campaigns, the city has taken another step toward ensuring all women can enjoy the right to equal protection under the law guaranteed by our Constitution.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun