A year later, progress in Baltimore sex offense investigations

A major category of crime is up substantially in Baltimore, and police and city officials are pleased.

A year after The Baltimore Sun revealed that the city led the country in the number of rape reports discarded by detectives — part of what women's advocates and victims said was a broader pattern of ignoring sexual assaults — the number of rapes being reported is up more than 50 percent.

City officials attribute the increase to an overhaul of the unit that investigates those crimes, along with a new attitude toward sex crimes and increased accountability.

"More people are coming forward and reporting, and those reports are being taken and handled appropriately," said Sheryl Goldstein, director of the Mayor's Office on Criminal Justice. "There have been positive steps taken and progress made, but there's still a lot of work to do. This is the beginning."

Advocates for victims and a nationally recognized sex offense investigator brought in to train officers agree that the city has further to go. Rosalyn Branson of TurnAround Inc. said city leaders have shown a genuine commitment to fixing the situation, but she said complaints continue to come in about "victim blaming" and poor treatment of victims by some detectives.

Joanne Archambault, a veteran sex crimes investigator flown to Baltimore to assist in the training, left unsure whether the city had truly acknowledged problems of the past. "They have all these new people and all these new policy changes, and I'm not sure they understand why those took place," Archambault said.

Last year, The Sun reported on data that showed the city's reported rapes had tumbled nearly 80 percent since 1995, while nationally such cases had fallen just 7 percent during the same time. Amid the city's reported decline, the number of "unfounded" cases rose to more than 35 percent in 2006. No other city in the country consistently reported 30 percent of its cases as unfounded; few reported more than 15 percent.

Confronted with those numbers, the then-head of the Baltimore Police Department's sex offense unit said the city's high number of unfounded rape claims was indicative of an overabundance of services offered to troubled women. He called the department's sex crimes unit the best in the country.

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, however, responded to the newspaper's report by ordering an audit covering 18 months. That review found that half the "unfounded" reports should have been classified as rapes or other sex offenses, and should have been investigated.

Police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III, who prior to becoming commissioner had overseen detective squads, said in a television interview that he had been too focused on gun crime and said the city had "failed" women.

Changes came quickly. All but three of the unit's 11 detectives and supervisors were given new assignments, and the unit was expanded to 25 detectives brought in from across the department and sent to training. A new commander was selected to oversee reforms, but he quit before his first day.

Maj. Clifton McWhite, then a patrol commander in the Western District, was ultimately given the task of changing the culture of the unit.

"These investigations are a lot tougher than any other investigation," said McWhite, who previously investigated homicides and shootings, but not sex crimes. "With a homicide, you know a crime is committed because you have a body. A shooting, you have a victim with a bullet hole. These [sex crimes] are a lot more arduous, because there's a lot more pieces, and you really have to sit down and put them together."

The city also bolstered an existing Sexual Assault Response Team, composed of police and city officials, prosecutors, nurses and women's advocates. It convenes monthly to review the progress of the reforms and has created subcommittees to work on projects.

A full-time city position was created. Heather Brantner was hired to coordinate the team and works on initiatives related to its work. Currently on her agenda: a far-reaching public outreach campaign encouraging women to report sex crimes. Brantner has spent evenings embedded with the unit, learning more about the work.

The detectives have told her "that it's different work than they've come from … that these are more complicated and harder cases to investigate," she said.

Victim advocates say the city's attitude toward the investigation of sexual assaults has improved. They note that there is a regular audit process in which the SART members are able to review active cases and assess how they are being handled, and for the first time detectives are consulting with advocates.

"Detectives are calling [TurnAround], asking for help, and that's a huge change. That's never happened before," Branson said.

But she said the department's approach has "not reached a victim-centered level that it should."

"Often, we still get reports that victims are sure that the police don't believe them or weren't nice to them," Branson said. "The failure to do that decreases the chances that she'll cooperate over time, and the perpetrators will be arrested. That's bad for all of us."

"We see attitudes changing a lot with domestic violence," Gail Reid, TurnAround's hospital coordinator, said in an interview with WYPR radio, alluding to another of Rawlings-Blake's initiatives, "but haven't seen the same response with sexual assault yet."

Archambault, a former San Diego sex crimes investigator who has also worked with investigators in cities such as Cleveland and New Orleans — two jurisdictions with well-publicized flaws in sex assault investigations — said that during her training sessions, spanning four days in May, she sensed that officials believed that new policies had solved the problem.

Indeed, officials told The Sun that supervisors now scrutinize detectives' reports more closely, and said morning supervisors check records of 911 calls to ensure that reports of sexual assaults were correctly handled.

But the former commander, Lt. Thomas Uzarowski, and Lt. Jon Foster, who survived the turnover in the unit, made similar assertions in June 2010, noting regular audits and reviews by supervisors of 911 calls.

"We have the best fail-safe situation when it comes to that, because not just one person makes a determination," Uzarowski said at the time.

Officials contend that there's a new vigor to such efforts, however. McWhite gave a recent example that he said shows the unit's dedication to digging in to cases. In April, he said, detectives learned a victim had phoned police to report that an unlicensed taxi driver had raped her but left the scene because she didn't think police would believe her. They took a report and eventually made an arrest. Charges are pending.

Archambault said she was encouraged by conversations with top officials, but said she did not believe that the new detectives necessarily realize what their predecessors were doing wrong or recognize the nuances of a sexual assault investigation. Experts say victims may lie or change details because of the trauma or fear of being judged, which detectives may see as a red flag that the entire story is fabricated or unreliable.

She recalls a discussion with a Baltimore detective who insisted that two detectives should be present during an interview with a victim, one to talk to the victim and another to take notes, which Archambault said is a "poor practice" that intimidates the victim. They were also reluctant to include a victim's advocate in the process, which she said is a broader problem here.

"They do not have a good relationship with advocacy [groups] there," Archambault said.

McWhite defended his detectives, saying they have embraced training and have solid investigative backgrounds. "Investigations are investigations," he said. "If you have the core concepts, regardless of where you go, they will stay with you."

City police data on sex offenses, through May

2010 2011 %

Rapes 75 126 +68%

Other sex offense 139 169 +22%

"Unfounded" cases 28 2 -93%

Rape arrests* 37 79 +114%

*Through June

Source: Mayor's Office on Criminal Justice