It is unfathomable and inexcusable that police departments in central Maryland got 223 sexual assault victims to sign away their rights to an investigation during the last two years. Presenting someone who has just suffered profound trauma with a form releasing the authorities of any responsibility for the lack of an investigation is inherently coercive. Baltimore County officials, the worst offenders in this regard, recognized the error of their ways after being asked about the practice by The Sun’s Catherine Rentz. Today, Anne Arundel said it would discontinue use of such forms, too. There is no excuse for other local departments to continue to use them, no matter how sensitively they think they handle the matter. There is little that can be more damaging to a sexual assault victim than the impression that police do not take the allegations seriously, yet that’s exactly what the waiver forms convey.
The ostensible purpose of these forms is to allow those who do not wish to relive the trauma of their assaults the opportunity to avoid the anxiety and fear that an investigation could engender. The reality is, they are a way for police departments to make their statistics on solving sexual assaults look better than they are. The mere existence of the forms sends the message that not investigating such crimes is normal and that a law enforcement agency does not want to pursue them. The practice deepens the feelings of shame and isolation that assault victims often feel. The fact that Baltimore County police employed them 172 times during the last two years reinforces complaints that law enforcement officials there have historically failed to treat such crimes seriously, which has a chilling effect on the reporting of sexual assaults and increases the odds that people will get away with rape.
We do have reason to hope that Baltimore County’s decision to abandon the forms reflects a new attitude in Towson about sexual assault. Today, newly inaugurated County Executive John A. Olszewksi Jr. released his transition committee reports, and they included a series of proposed steps to improve the handling of sexual assault allegations. While there’s a big difference between what goes in a transition report and what actually happens, the recommendations point in the right direction and should be taken up by other local jurisdictions too.
Police and prosecutors need training on the effects of trauma on victims’ memories and decision making, and they need to recognize the reasons assault victims may be reluctant to come forward. Law enforcement officials need to connect assault victims with advocates or even specially trained victims rights attorneys to make sure the criminal justice system does not inflict even more trauma on them. And local jurisdictions need to provide their sexual assault units with enough resources to thoroughly investigate all complaints. The backlogs in DNA testing of rape kits that have plagued Maryland over the years cannot be allowed to continue.
The steps needed to establish a proper response to sexual assault are no great mystery. The International Association of Police Chiefs has a well regarded set of model policies and training guidelines designed to restore “the victim’s dignity and sense of control, while decreasing the victim’s anxiety and increasing the understanding of the criminal justice system and process.” Some of the key principles behind the IACP guidelines are that police should make sure they do not form or convey judgments about allegations until a thorough investigation has taken place; that they take steps to minimize further physical and psychological harm to victims; that they properly inform victims of the availability of forensic testing and medical care; and that they keep investigations focused on the behavior and actions of alleged perpetrators, not victims.