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Baltimore County pledged to change rape investigations — but lawsuit draws questions about those reforms

UMBC students protest amid student anger over a federal lawsuit's allegations that campus police have been covering up sexual assaults complaints. (Jerry Jackson, Baltimore Sun video)

A federal lawsuit alleging that Baltimore County police mishandled rape cases has drawn questions from an advocate who conducted an independent review that recommended changes to the way such incidents are investigated.

Lisae C. Jordan, director of the Maryland Coalition Against Sexual Assault, said the lawsuit filed by two former University of Maryland, Baltimore County students raises “extremely serious concerns.” The women allege that authorities humiliated, intimidated and deceived them as part of an intentional effort to “cover up justifiable complaints of sexual assault.”

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“I am anxious to hear the Baltimore County response … particularly whether or not they were compliant” with recommended reforms, Jordan told The Baltimore Sun. “I think if they are not implementing those new policies, there are very serious questions we should ask.”

In 2016, Baltimore County officials asked Jordan and retired Judge Barbara Kerr Howe to review more than 100 reported rapes that county police classified as unfounded. The review was prompted by a published report that found 34 percent of rape accusations in Baltimore County in 2014 were deemed unfounded, while the national average that year was 7 percent.

Kerr could not be reached for comment for this article.

Though the review found that none of the alleged rapes should be moved forward for prosecution, county officials last year announced changes to the way reported sexual assaults are investigated. For one, police officers would no longer be allowed to label a rape accusation as unfounded; the state's attorney's office would make that determination.

The review also recommended that police implement a system to track sexual assault complaints at residential facilities such as nursing homes, group homes and treatment centers; that communication between sex crimes detectives and the Baltimore County state’s attorney’s office should be increased and documented; that police should receive intensive training in responding to individuals with mental illness and cognitive disabilities; and that the county’s Sexual Assault Response Team should be strengthened and law enforcement should be required to attend.

It also recommended that the state’s sexual assault statutes be changed to make it clear that rape victims are not required to physically resist sexual assault.

In announcing the changes, then-County Executive Kevin Kamenetz said that "we embrace each of these recommendations" and that some of the training and communication improvements were already underway.

Baltimore County Executive Don Mohler, who was appointed to the post after Kamenetz’s death in May, says the county has made the recommended reforms.

“Each of the six recommendations put forth by the independent review was implemented and remain in place,” Mohler said in a statement last week. “Baltimore County recognizes that any accusations of sexual assault must be taken seriously, and treated with dignity, respect and sensitivity. A survivor-centered approach in such cases must be front and center.”

The recent lawsuit argues otherwise.

“We have evidence that Baltimore County has continued to conceal or fail to act on reports of sexual assault despite their previous promises to change,” said attorney Rignal W. Baldwin, who is representing the women.

One woman alleges in the lawsuit that she was raped by three UMBC baseball players in October 2017, and that after she reported the alleged assault to police, the case was “cleared” by “exceptional circumstances” less than 24 hours after the assault. The other woman said she was raped by a fellow UMBC student in September 2015 in his dorm room. She said she was initially discouraged by school officials from reporting the incident to police, and once she did report it, county police labeled it as a “suspicious circumstance,” the lawsuit said.

Jordan said complaints about poor sexual assault investigations, such as those alleged in the lawsuit, “are the types of complaints we hear on a regular basis from survivors across the state.”

The Baltimore Sun is withholding the women’s names because it does not identify alleged victims of sexual assault.

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A county police spokesman deferred comment to the county executive’s office, which declined to comment beyond Mohler’s statement.

County State’s Attorney Scott Shellenberger, who is also named in the lawsuit, declined to comment on the litigation. But he said last week that his office has implemented reforms.

The office has formalized the procedure that only prosecutors can determine whether a sexual assault allegation is unfounded, he said.

Detectives “routinely bring potential cases to us and we will make decisions going forward,” he said.

He said the three prosecutors who work in the state’s attorney’s office sex offense unit review police reports and evidence, and talk to the detectives in each case. In some cases, he said, prosecutors also interview the victims, even after a police detective has, to help them determine whether the office can pursue a case.

In some cases, an individual prosecutor can make a decision. But in more difficult cases, the prosecutor will bring it to a supervisor or a senior prosecutor in the office, Shellenberger said.

Shellenberger said prosecutors in his office have completed training to better handle such investigations that included “being more sensitive on the language you use when talking to sex abuse victims.”

The training last November included presentations such as “See Me as Equal — Encountering Victims with Cognitive, Communicative and Physical Disabilities” and another called “Forensic Experiential Trauma Interview,” according to a schedule of the event provided by Shellenberger’s office.

Two significant reforms passed by the state legislature in 2017 also addressed some concerns in the lawsuit. The rape kit of the woman allegedly assaulted in 2015 was destroyed by Baltimore County police. A law passed in 2017 now requires law enforcement to keep rape kits for 20 years. The other reform clarified the rape statute to show that survivors do not have to prove that they physically fought their attackers.

Defendants in the lawsuit also include UMBC and the Board of Regents for the University System of Maryland.

A University System of Maryland spokesman said in a statement that it is “committed to reducing the incidence of sexual misconduct and to responding when it happens.” The statement said the system and its 12 institutions “have adopted new policies and procedures reflecting our commitment to addressing sexual misconduct, and the USM supports each institution in furtherance of this commitment.”

Baltimore Sun reporter Christina Tkacik contributed to this article.

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