Sexual assault victims need competency more than comfort from BPD

Note to BPD: Comfy chairs is not the way to comfort sexual assault victims; taking their cases seriously is.

Baltimore Police Commissioner Kevin Davis says a made-over interview room at police headquarters sends a message to sexual assault survivors that "we believe you, you're safe, and we're here to help you."

Here's a message for the commissioner: There's a better way to gain the trust of those who say they were raped — take their claims seriously.

Neutral paint, soft lighting and a choice of chairs — rocking or stuffed — is all well and good. But when your police officers have been found by the U.S. Department of Justice to routinely blame the victim while gathering information ("Why are you messing that guy's life up?"), discredit their claims ("All our [sex offense unit] cases are bulls**t") and "systematically" under-investigate sexual assault cases, it feels a little thin.

What's that saying? It's like putting lipstick on a pig. I suppose it can't hurt — especially if it reminds officers to take care with this particular kind of witness — but it doesn't change the fact that your department has for years added insult to injury for hundreds of women.

Of course, the BPD is not alone. Dismissing and faulting those who claim sexual assault is standard practice across disciplines.

Anita Hill's three-days of graphic sexual harassment testimony before the all-male Senate Judiciary Committee of 1991 didn't prevent Clarence Thomas from being confirmed to the U.S. Supreme Court. The films of Woody Allen, Roman Polanski and, most recently, Nate Parker are revered, despite allegations of child molestation against the first two men and rape against the third. And good old Bill Clinton is still one of the country's most popular past presidents regardless of multiple allegations against him of sexual assault and infidelity.

Speaking of politicians, let's take a look at the two major party candidates vying for the presidency — including Bill's wife.

She's accused of trash-talking his accusers or trying to shut them up. In a tweet posted in January this year and again this week, Juanita Broaddrick says Hillary Clinton "tried to silence" her claims of being raped by Bill in 1978. Perhaps that's what led Ms. Clinton, who has held herself up as a champion for women, to this winter delete a line from her campaign website that said "I want to send a message to every survivor of sexual assault: Don't let anyone silence your voice. You have the right to be heard. You have the right to be believed, and we're with you." With you, that is, if your allegations don't involve our friends and family.

And then there's adulterer Donald Trump. Where to begin? His first wife said in a sworn deposition as part of their divorce proceedings in the early 1990s that he "raped" her out of anger following a botched surgery to hide a bald spot. And he told reporters this year that he would expect a woman who is sexually harassed on the job — including his own daughter — to "find another career or find another company" and that some of the women complaining about harassment from disgraced media executive Roger Ailes are essentially ingrates.

Colleges and universities might actually be the worst responders to sexual assault claims, however. A 19-year-old University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill student, for example, said this month that she told campus officials she was raped by a football player, who was later reassured by investigators that he shouldn't worry while she was "treated like a suspect."

In all, more than 200 higher education institutions nationwide are under federal investigation for their poor handling of such claims, including a half dozen Maryland schools — like the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. Officials there told a student that her allegations of being drugged, raped and beaten by a fellow student were "not serious enough to report to the police," according to the woman's lawyer, who filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education in June.

But then again, why would you report it? Especially when the police response — at least in Baltimore — has been to belittle and blame you.

While allegations don't automatically equal fact, they do deserve a proper and thorough vetting, whether that begins in a cold interrogation room or one with cozy shawls and art on the walls.

Commissioner Davis says city police have also made meaningful reforms to address their history of failures in handling sexual offense claims. But the department has said that before.

Let's hope this time they mean it.

Tricia Bishop is The Sun's deputy editorial page editor. Her column runs every other Friday. Her email is tricia.bishop@baltsun.com; Twitter: @triciabishop.

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