Police to review rape case policies in wake of news story

Police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III said Sunday that his department would work to improve how it categorizes and resolves rape investigations, responding to a newspaper report that found Baltimore has the nation's highest rate of cases that officers conclude are false or baseless.

The Baltimore Sun story prompted Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake to order an audit of the department's procedures and statistics. The mayor met with Bealefeld on Friday to discuss the issue. In a statement Sunday, City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young said he has asked council members to "examine police investigative practices" after the audit is complete.

For four years, according to crime data collected by the FBI, Baltimore has logged a higher percentage of rape cases that officers call false or baseless than any other U.S. city. Nearly one-third of rape cases investigated by detectives are deemed "unfounded" — five times the national average. And four out of 10 emergency calls involving allegations of rape are dismissed even before being forwarded to a detective, suggesting a potentially deeper problem.

Bealefeld, who had declined to comment for the story published in Sunday's editions, said at an unrelated news conference that it "certainly draws attention to a situation we've been focused on." He said his agency has long worked with women's groups to "bring structure" to rape investigation policies.

"We are going to try to do our jobs better," he said, adding that he would evaluate the leadership and detectives in the unit responsible for rape reports.

The Sun story highlighted that one detective in the 50-member unit that handles sexual assaults and child abuse was responsible for one-fifth of the unfounded rape reports last year.

The mayor's director of criminal justice, Sheryl Goldstein, will lead the audit with assistance from Col. Dean M. Palmere, chief of criminal investigations for the Police Department, said police spokesman Anthony Guglielmi. It will include a review of how emergency calls about sexual assault are handled and an assessment of cases deemed unfounded by detectives, the spokesman said.

The commissioner is "definitely concerned," Guglielmi said, but before any action is taken, "we need to examine what's going on. If we are doing something wrong, we'll fix it."

Young, in his statement Sunday afternoon, said the "troublingly high percentage of reported rape cases that eventually become classified as false is extremely worrisome."

In an interview, he said "the system" might be at fault, urging the police department to look at how rape reports are categorized. "I think [the terms] need to be defined a little better," he said, "so that officers have a clear, concise way of looking at things."

Rawlings-Blake, who ordered the audit after a Sun reporter sought comment from her about unfounded rape reports, issued a statement Sunday morning saying she was "deeply troubled" by the data.

Bealefeld, Rawlings-Blake and Young all expressed hope that the issue would not stop rape victims from coming forward.

"We need to make sure people feel comfortable," Young said, "and don't just think that when they report something, it's going to get thrown out."

Bealefeld said victims need to "have confidence that reports are taken seriously." If they don't, he said, "we need to shake ourselves hard."

Mayor's statement

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake issued the following statement about the Sun investigation:

"I am deeply troubled to learn about the high number of unfounded rape complaints and the decline in reported rapes over the past decade. The data shows the critical need to immediately address the issue with a comprehensive review of investigative practices and response. Sadly, rape is one of the most underreported crimes because women are often ashamed and afraid to confront their attackers. We need to do everything in our power to ensure victims of sexual assault feel safe reporting incidents to police. No victim should ever suffer in silence. The Police Department must examine their current practices and work with leading sexual assault experts to develop and implement new best practices that encourage victims to come forward. Accordingly, I have tasked the Mayor's Office of Criminal Justice to take a leadership role with the Sexual Assault Review Team (SART) to oversee the development and implementation of improved Police Department practices. Commissioner Bealefeld has assured me that the Department is conducting a full audit of unfounded complaints and an internal review of training and investigative practices."