Over 2017 and 2018, police departments in the Baltimore area prompted sexual assault victims to waive their rights to an investigation — 223 times, according to a survey by The Baltimore Sun.
The practice runs counter to guidance from experts and from the International Association of Chiefs of Police.
Baltimore County had the highest number: 172 victims reporting sexual assault signed the forms over the two years. After inquiries from The Baltimore Sun, Baltimore County police said they were ceasing the practice.
In Anne Arundel County, 43 sex-assault victims had signed the forms. In Harford County, eight.
Experts say victims suffering from a recent sexual assault trauma may have impaired decision-making and memory and should not be asked to make long-term investigative or prosecution decisions.
“Given what we know about memory and emotions and how people process trauma, it’s totally and completely inappropriate,” said Lisae Jordan, executive director of the Maryland Coalition Against Sexual Assault.
Many victims have been asked to sign the waiver hours after an attack — sometimes while in the hospital, before or just after a forensic examination.
In at least one instance in Baltimore County, a victim signed it while still under the influence of alcohol.
Victims may opt out of an investigation and often do so without a form, according to Tom Tremblay, a consultant for police departments and the U.S. Justice Department. He called the practice “outdated” and “ineffective.”
Spokesman Shawn Vinson told The Sun that Baltimore County police had already been reviewing the waiver among other sexual assault investigative practices.
“The outdated rationale was to end the investigation if the victim did not want to go forward,” Vinson wrote to The Sun in an email. “The victim being forced to continue would cause additional suffering having to participate in the criminal investigation and subsequent prosecution.”
However, “we saw that most victim’s rights groups and law enforcement experts in this field agree that this is not true. When we reviewed best practices, it was clear that this waiver should no longer be used in our investigations.”
A review shows that Baltimore County amended the waiver in October 2016 to add that the investigation could be reopened — but also that evidence would be destroyed in a year.
Anne Arundel County’s waiver notes that a case may be reopened at any time. Spokeswoman Sgt. Jacklyn Davis said 43 waivers were filed out of 464 reported sex offenses over the two years.
Davis said the Sex Offense Unit was “victim-centered” and the form was used to document victims’ choice. “From a historical standpoint, the form was also used as a way to protect the Police Department, as it reflects the victim's wishes versus the perspective that the agency failed to complete an investigation,” she said.
Arundel and Harford counties have used the form for other crimes as well, according to spokespeople.
Harford County sheriff spokeswoman Cristie Hopkins said in an email that the form was a “formality” and a “necessary paper trail when a crime victim makes it abundantly clear that they do not want to move forward.”
Hopkins added that victims deciding whether to sign “have access to victims services, local hotlines, and other services to ensure they understand their choice,” as well as instructions on contacting the department if they change their mind.
Joanne Archambault, CEO of End Violence Against Women International, wrote the 2005 model policy published by the International Association of Chiefs of Police that warns police not to ask sexual-assault victims to sign waivers. Archambault told The Sun such a request can send the “wrong message” to victims already hesitant to come forward.
She, the association and other victims’ law centers are trying to improve investigative practices because so few rapes are reported and criminals convicted — leaving rapists free to re-offend. Fewer than 20 percent of rapes are reported, according to Justice Department statistics. In a 2013 department survey, a top reason women chose not to report was that they did not believe police would help.
Tremblay said another factor is that victims do not want to re-experience trauma. They may be further discouraged by a form that sends the message that “this officer doesn’t want to deal with this crime,” he said.
Tremblay said it was unclear how many agencies used the form, though its use was “not uncommon.” Essentially, he said, “this is a way for them to close the case.”
Archambault said such forms have been used to intimidate victims or coerce them to stop reporting the incident. “The whole thing is about shutting the case down,” she said.
Archambault, who led sexual assault investigations in San Diego for several years, said she has been training officers not to use such forms since at least 1995 — and using Baltimore County’s waiver as an example “of what not to do.”
“That was the one of the worst ones I had seen,” Archambault said. “You hear about verbal intimidation,” she said, “But this was on letterhead and talks of how the victim’s decision to sign the waiver was not the result of any threats or coercion. But the whole thing is coercion.”
In one case in October 2017 in Baltimore County, police asked a 21-year-old Towson University student to sign the form while she was in the hospital waiting for a sexual-assault forensic exam, according to police and medical files. Blood tests show she had a .085 blood alcohol concentration level at the time — too drunk to drive in Maryland.
The form read: “I release from responsibility and hold harmless Baltimore County and any of its employees from any and all liability concerning my decision to cease the investigation. I make the request to terminate the investigation into this incident voluntarily, and of my own free will. My decision is not the result of any threats, promises or inducements. ...”
Still, she took part in a rape kit exam and signed a form letting the Greater Baltimore Medical Center share evidence with police and requesting a law enforcement investigation.
Baltimore County had not asked victims of any other crimes to sign such waivers; the agency did not explain why.
Lisae Jordan was so incensed when she learned how many forms had been used in Baltimore County that she called police to tell them to stop immediately.
Outraged, Baltimore County Del. Shelly Hettleman called Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr. asking for the practice to be stopped after speaking to The Sun. She said she heard back shortly thereafter that police had stopped.
The form the Towson student signed also stated that her rape kit and other evidence would be destroyed a year from the date reported. However, such destruction would have violated a new Maryland law.
The woman is now part of a class action suit that alleges Baltimore County authorities have a systemic indifference to sexual violence.
Baltimore County police have not answered questions about specific cases. Officials are expected to announce reforms to sexual assault practices in the near future.
A review of more than a dozen rape cases show that Baltimore County officers marked cases with a waiver as “exceptionally cleared” or “unfounded.” Such classification improves the balance sheet of police, making it look as if they are solving a higher percentage of rapes.
A national analysis of rape clearances by ProPublica, Newsy and Reveal last year showed that such exceptionally cleared cases make up more than half of the cleared rape cases investigated by police in Baltimore, Howard and Montgomery counties.
Liz Donegan led the Austin, Texas, sex crimes division for years and now trains departments about best practices for sexual assault investigations.
“We wouldn’t hand this to a teller after a bank robbery. Why would we do this to a sex assault victim knowing these crimes are so complex and personal and we’re asking them to make decision on what is possibly the worst day of their life?
“The answer is that it protects them from a victim who said we aren’t doing our jobs.”