Anne Arundel County officials moved Tuesday to end the controversial practice of asking victims of sexual assault to waive their rights to an investigation.
The policy change came the same day that The Baltimore Sun reported that police departments in the Baltimore area prompted victims to waive their rights to an investigation 223 times in 2017 and 2018. During that period, Baltimore County had the highest number: 172 victims reporting sexual assault signed the forms over the two years. Anne Arundel had 43. Harford County had eight.
The practice runs counter to guidance from experts and from the International Association of Chiefs of Police, as it can be seen as a way to discourage the victim from participating in an investigation. Many victims in the Baltimore area have been asked to sign the waiver hours after an attack — sometimes while in the hospital, before or just after a forensic examination.
Anne Arundel County Executive Steuart Pittman directed Police Chief Timothy J. Altomare to cease the use of the waiver with sexual assault victims on Tuesday afternoon, according to County Executive spokesperson Chris Trumbauer.
Trumbauer said the move came after state Sen. Sarah Elfreth, a Democrat from Anne Arundel County, contacted the office about the waivers following The Sun’s investigation.
“Given some of the objections, we felt appropriate to end the use and the [police] chief agreed,” Trumbauer said. Neither Elfreth nor Pittman had been aware of the practice before The Sun’s publication. Trumbauer said he learned Anne Arundel County police had used the waivers for at least two decades.
“The fact that this was even a practice is deeply disturbing,” Elfreth said. “The speed at which this was fixed gives me a lot of faith in county executive and police. … When only 20 percent of rape is reported, we need to do all we can to build trust between police doing a good job and victims. These waivers flew in the face of that.”
Also Tuesday, Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr. called the practice “wrong” during a news conference about his transition team’s recommendations, which included a new task force to review the county’s sexual assault procedures. The team says officials should examine issues including law enforcement training, the testing of rape kits and ensuring the accountability of investigators.
Under the administration of the late County Executive Kevin Kamenetz, the county had previously reviewed its practices related to sexual assault investigations and pledged reform after criticism regarding destroyed and untested rape kits, questionable investigative practices and other issues. But its handling of such cases was again called into question last year in a class-action lawsuit alleging that prosecutors and detectives covered up complaints of sexual assault.
Concerns from the public and media reports about the county’s handling of sexual assault cases prompted members of the transition team to suggest the task force, said Sheryl Goldstein, vice president of the Abell Foundation and co-chair of the team’s public safety work group.
Baltimore County had ceased using the waivers after inquiries during The Sun’s investigation. State Del. Shelly Hettleman was outraged after learning about it from a Sun reporter and called county officials.
“The day she brought that information to the county, we stopped the practice,” Olszewski said. “It needed to change.”
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. Lisae Jordan, executive director of the Maryland Coalition Against Sexual Assault, had said use of the waivers was “totally and completely inappropriate.”
On Tuesday, she called for the Harford County Sheriff’s Office to discontinue the practice — and said legislation might be required.
“I’m dismayed to learn Harford County continues to use this outdated practice with survivors,” she said. “We’re hopeful that they will re-examine their policies. If not, we will bring it to the legislature next year for further discussion.”
State Del. Susan McComas, a Republican representing Harford County, raised questions about the county’s use of the waivers.
“This is concerning,” she said, though she said there could be explanations. “How soon after the rape was the waiver signed? Did the victim have the advice of an advocate who could guide the victim through the process?”
State Sen. Robert Cassilly, a Republican who represents Harford County, was cautious in his criticism.
“It’s probably a system that merits a second look, but I’m hesitant to say a police officer was not intending to do the right thing at the time,” he said.
Cassilly said he didn’t have a problem with putting a “pen to paper” to mark the victim’s intent, but that it is important that the victim not make such decision in the immediate aftermath of the assault.
“Sometimes you want that decision to be impressed upon her that it is her decision and not that of others,” he said. “But it needs to be in a space where she feels comfortable to make these decisions and that she understands it’s not irrevocable. That needs to be clear.”
Cristie Hopkins, a spokeswoman for the Harford County Sheriff’s Office, said Tuesday, “We continue to review policies and procedures to ensure we are operating in the best interest of our community members.”
“I would encourage the Delegate [McComas] or anyone who has questions about this process and/or procedure to reach out to their local law enforcement agency,” Hopkins said.
Hopkins had previously said sometimes victims do not want to move forward with an investigation and the waivers are a “formality” to document a victim’s wish not to pursue an investigation any further. She said victim advocates are available to speak with the victims and explain the process. She said the sheriff’s office does explain that victims can change their minds and informs them of the procedures for destruction of the evidence.
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.
Most jurisdictions in Central Maryland have a policy to not use such waivers for sexual assault victims.
Marcus Jones, assistant chief of Montgomery County Police, told The Sun it has not used such forms since at least 2004 because they could discourage those who already have a reluctance to come forward.
“We made the decision, in case a victim changed their mind, that they had option to do that by not having a waiver,” he said. “We don’t want women to feel they are under any pressure.”
Spokespersons for law enforcement in Baltimore City, Howard County and Carroll County told The Sun they do not use any such form for sexual assault victims.
A Prince George’s County police spokesperson told The Sun eight sexual assault victims over three months in 2018 signed the forms — but use of the forms was in error.
“When command staff overseeing sexual assault saw the cases coming in with these release forms, they said, ‘What is this?’” said police spokesperson Jennifer Donelan. “And they made a friendly call to the state’s attorney’s office to confirm that these forms were not good ideas for sexual assault victims, and it was stopped.”