Baltimore County officials announced changes to the way sexual assaults are investigated and prosecuted after an independent review of more than 100 reported rapes that police classified as unfounded.
The county's focus on sexual assault comes as state lawmakers are considering bills that could make it easier to convict alleged rapists, at a time when high-profile assault cases have drawn attention to the issue.
Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz, joined at a news conference Wednesday by interim police Chief Terry Sheridan and State's Attorney Scott Shellenberger, said police officers will no longer be allowed to label a rape accusation as unfounded. Now, the state's attorney's office will make that determination.
Police deemed 34 percent of rape accusations in Baltimore County in 2014 to be unfounded. The national average that year was 7 percent. A BuzzFeed News report on the county rate drew national attention and spurred Kamenetz to seek a review.
"While we disputed some of the allegations, we also used it as an opportunity for self-reflection, to see how we could improve our investigatory process and, frankly, what we could do better in our police department," Kamenetz said.
The review by retired Judge Barbara Kerr Howe and Lisae C. Jordan, director of the Maryland Coalition Against Sexual Assault, found that none of the 124 "unfounded" rapes in Baltimore County from the past three years should be moved forward for prosecution.
But they found the county could do a better job investigating and prosecuting rape and sexual assault cases. In addition to recommending that the authority to determine whether a case is unfounded be given to prosecutors, they recommended that:
•Sex crimes detectives interview victims and suspects in alleged sexual assaults;
•Detectives communicate better with prosecutors and document that communication;
•Police track sexual assault complaints at residential facilities such as nursing homes, group homes and treatment centers.
•Police officers receive more training in dealing with individuals with mental illness or cognitive disabilities, interviewing victims of trauma and handling cases that involve intoxication.
"We embrace each of these recommendations," Kamenetz said. He said some of the training and communication improvements are already underway.
Jordan said she was pleased the county was willing to make changes.
"It's never easy to hear someone say, 'Hey, you need to make some changes and things aren't perfect,' particularly on such a sensitive issue," she said.
The county also is backing a state effort to clarify the legal definition of rape so that "force or threat of force" is not a requirement to charge a suspect with rape.
If that law were different, Jordan said, 30 percent to 40 percent of the 124 unfounded rape reports might have qualified as cases that could be prosecuted.
Sen. Delores Kelley of Baltimore County and Del. Kathleen Dumais of Montgomery County are pushing a bill to change the legal definition of rape — an effort last attempted more than a decade ago.
Kelley said the new definition would "bring Maryland out of the Stone Ages."
There's no requirement that robbery victims show they tried to fight off a robber, she said, but rape victims must show they tried to fight back.
"You have the power to undo this wrong," she told her colleagues on the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee.
The change in law would apply to second-degree rape. First-degree rape — which carries a longer sentence — must also include other elements, such as the use of a weapon, serious injury or kidnapping.
The bill's prospects are unclear. The Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee heard from advocates for victims, Baltimore County officials and representatives for prosecutors and public defenders during a 90-minute hearing Wednesday.
State Sen. Bobby Zirkin, the Baltimore County Democrat who chairs the committee, said members agree in concept but need to make sure that changing the law is the appropriate way to fix the problem.
Lawmakers are also considering a bill that would allow prosecutors, in certain circumstances, to introduce evidence in court that a defendant committed past sexual assaults. The legislation, part of Gov. Larry Hogan's package of anti-crime bills, has been championed by Baltimore State's Attorney Marilyn Mosby.
Another bill under consideration would set standards for how long police departments must hold on to rape kits that have not been tested.
The office of Attorney General Brian E. Frosh reported last year that more than 3,500 untested rape kits are sitting in storage at police departments, for reasons that included victims declining to pursue charges, prosecutors declining to take the case, and victims and suspects knowing one another.
A bill sponsored by Zirkin and Del. Shelly Hettleman, a Baltimore County Democrat, would require that police departments keep rape kits for 20 years. Victims would be given written information about the testing and storage of rape kits, and could request to be notified when their rape kits are destroyed.