Baltimore kicks off outreach campaign to sexual assault victims

City officials kicked off a public outreach campaign Wednesday to encourage victims of rape and sexual assault to seek help in the wake of revelations that Baltimore police discarded rape reports at the highest rate in the country.

The campaign's theme — "Rape is not your fault" — is intended to help break down barriers between victims and police. Ads will appear on city buses and in businesses, and there will be a television spot featuring Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake. The city also created a website and established a hotline staffed by counselors from a women's group.

"We want to send a clear message that rape is a serious crime and is never the fault of the victim," Rawlings-Blake said at a news conference in front of City Hall. "It is my sincere hope that victims know that they are not to blame, and there is somewhere for them to turn for help and support."

The $20,000 ad campaign, part of continuing reforms enacted since The Baltimore Sun reported the high rate of rape reports that police deemed "unfounded," was developed by Nancy Levesque of the Maryland Coalition Against Sexual Assault and Becky Slogeris, a 22-year-old master's student at the Maryland Institute College of Art.

The slogans were screened before a focus group of sexual assault survivors. Against a light blue background, phrases such as "I was drunk. Was it my fault?" appear next to the statement "Rape is not your fault. Get help today."

"The concept is to dispel the myths in a victim's mind," Levesque said.

Rape and sexual assault are severely underreported crimes, with studies showing that as many as 80 percent of such cases are not reported to authorities. Gail Reid, who works with TurnAround Inc., said advocates "hope people will read these campaign posters, maybe have some conversations, and consider getting help when something like this should happen."

Victim support groups have said recently that some officers continue to treat victims poorly. Police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III said police are determined to fix that issue.

"There's problems at the patrol level, there's problems at the detective level," he said. "There's problems, not just in Baltimore but nationally, in terms of how victims of sexual assault are treated."

So far, police have ordered a number of changes in the way sex crimes are handled, and a task force called the Sexual Assault Response Team monitors the progress and continues to work on reforms.

As of May, the number of rape reports determined to be "unfounded" had declined 93 percent to 5 percent of all cases investigated by detectives. Patrol officers who respond to 911 calls for rape are required to write a report. Previously, patrol officers dismissed without explanation 4 out of 10 calls to 911 reporting rape or sexual assault.

Overall, reported rapes in Baltimore increased 70 percent from 2009 to 2010, and as of mid-September, rapes were up another 50 percent compared with the same time last year. Officials say that's not indicative of a rise in attacks, but the result of increased reporting.

Police also are solving more cases. Unofficial statistics show detectives have made 101 arrests as of Sept. 17, compared with 56 at the same time last year.

The television spot in the new campaign features Rawlings-Blake discussing how her administration has sought to improve sexual assault investigations. Aides said the ad won't begin airing on television until after the November general election due to election laws. The campaign was paid for with a grant from the governor's office of crime control and prevention.

In the spot, Rawlings-Blake said officials are "far from done."

Those who work with sexual assault victims agree.

Joanne Archambault, a veteran sex crimes investigator brought to Baltimore to give training to sex offense detectives, said after she left town this summer that she was unsure whether the city had truly acknowledged the problems of the past.

Rosalyn Branson of TurnAround Inc. said in July that city leaders have shown a genuine commitment to fixing the situation, but she said she continues to hear complaints of "victim blaming" and poor treatment of victims by some detectives.

This week, Jacqueline Robarge, whose nonprofit Power Inside works with homeless and drug-addicted women, said her clients have reported that patrol officers continue to refuse to take reports of sexual assault when approached by women on the street. After The Sun reported on Robarge's concerns, she said police contacted her to set up a meeting.

"For the systemic issues, we were able to put some immediate things in place to control that, and the 'unfoundeds' have gone down dramatically," Bealefeld said. The broader issue of "trying to professionalize a police force is something you have to work at every single day," he said.

"We can't do it alone. I've got to get the three-stripers and lieutenants on board," Bealefeld said. "I've got to get the cops in the dark of the night, when no one's looking, to respond the right way and treat people right."



To seek help for a rape or sexual assault in Baltimore, call the city's hotline at 443-279-0379.

Recommended on Baltimore Sun