Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr. launches a task force to look into sexual assault investigation in the county. (Alison Knezevich, Baltimore Sun video)
For the second time in less than three years, Baltimore County officials will review the way police and prosecutors conduct sexual assault investigations following continued complaints about how authorities handle the cases.
County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr. announced Monday that he’s charged a task force with examining police and prosecution policies and training with an eye toward making investigators more accountable and ensuring police consider the trauma that victims have experienced.
“Our residents deserve to know that when they are the victims of sexual assault, that our law enforcement agency ... will respond with all the resources at our disposal to bring justice,” Olszewski said at a news conference in Towson. “We know that unfortunately, too often in the past, that has not always been the case.”
Three years ago, then-County Executive Kevin Kamenetz ordered his own independent review of the issue, but, Olszewski said, “Clearly, there’s more to be done.”
County officials face criticism about sexual assault investigations on several fronts, including a federal lawsuit alleging the mishandling of cases and complaints from advocates that some of the department’s practices don’t meet nationally accepted guidelines.
This past fall, former students of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County filed a federal lawsuit alleging that county prosecutors and detectives, as well as university officials, mishandled their cases. The lawsuit alleges that authorities intimidated and deceived women who reported sexual assaults. County officials have sought dismissal of the claims against them.
Olszewski cited the Sun investigation and the lawsuit in saying he wants a closer look at the issue. The task force will look at factors including the testing of rape kits, the accountability of investigators, and the training that police receive. Its recommendations are expected within the next six months.
In 2016, Kamenetz ordered a review of more than 100 sexual assault cases amid questions about the high number of reported rapes that police deemed unfounded. The review concluded that none of the cases could have moved forward for prosecution, but Kamenetz announced a number of changes to the way the department would handle reports of sexual assault.
The circumstances in Catherine Becket's case underscore a number of shortcomings and inconsistencies in how police departments across Maryland handle rape cases, a Baltimore Sun investigation has found. Evidence has been destroyed in hundreds of cases, complaints are discarded at a high rate, police policies and procedures vary widely between jurisdictions, and victim advocates say Maryland's law creates confusion about when cases can proceed.
The federal lawsuit alleges that despite promises of reform, the department now classifies more reports of assaults “as ‘cleared’ due to ‘exceptional circumstances’ to avoid dealing with the scrutiny of ‘unfounding’ cases.”
According to the FBI, “cleared by exception” means law enforcement has identified a suspect and “gathered enough evidence to support an arrest [and] make a charge” — yet could not prosecute because of a “circumstance outside the control of law enforcement.” The agency gives such examples as the death of an assailant or a victim’s refusal to cooperate.
The county task force will be chaired by Sheryl Goldstein, vice president of the Abell Foundation. Goldstein was a member of Olszewski’s transition team, which recommended the county examine sexual assault issues.
Other members of the task force are: David Thomas, a program manager with the International Association of Chiefs of Police; Rosalyn Branson, CEO of the nonprofit TurnAround; Laura Clary, clinical manager of Greater Baltimore Medical Center's Sexual Assault Forensic Examination program; Deputy Baltimore County State’s Attorney John Cox; Lt. Brian Edwards, commander of the Police Department’s Special Victim’s Unit; and Nadia BenAissa, president of the UMBC group We Believe You, which advocates for survivors.
Several members said they hope the task force can make recommendations that will improve victims’ trust in the department and thus increase the number of people who report sexual assaults.