The DOJ report is expected to launch a lengthy and costly reform process (Emma Patti Harris/Baltimore Sun video)
In Baltimore, fewer than a quarter of the cases of alleged sexual assault investigated by police result in the arrest of a suspect. That's about half the national average, according to last week's report on city police by the Department of Justice. What could explain that disparity? Is it that women in Baltimore are prone to lying about being assaulted? That cases here are for some reason more difficult to solve? Or is it that six years after the department's utter failure to properly investigate sexual assaults was exposed by The Sun's Justin Fenton, not nearly enough has changed?
There's plenty of reason to conclude it's the latter. DOJ officials reviewed cases from 2010-2015 and found a pattern of cursory investigations of sexual assault cases. City police requested forensic analysis of rape kits less than 20 percent of the time and routinely failed to interview witnesses or suspects. The situation is even worse for those engaged in commercial sex work. The statistics and anecdotes the DOJ collected suggest that city police consider sexual assault allegations a nuisance rather than a matter of vital importance to half the city's population.
In 2010, Mr. Fenton reported that Baltimore police were classifying half of sexual assault cases as "unfounded," by far the highest rate in the nation. Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake ordered a review, after which half the previously "unfounded" cases were reopened. The police department cleaned house in the sex crimes unit, and the city beefed up an oversight board of advocates, medical professionals and others. Yet a veteran sex crimes investigator brought to Baltimore at the time to train police left town with a disquieting sense that city detectives still didn't get it. "They have all these new people and all these new policy changes, and I'm not sure they understand why those took place," Joanne Archambault said then.
The DOJ report found that rather than classifying half of cases as "unfounded," city police now allow between 53 percent and 58 percent of sexual assault cases to linger in an "open" status each year, which often meant that police had done a preliminary investigation and nothing more. The report notes one case deemed "open" on which there had been no activity since February 2013, "no request for a lab test kit, no follow-up with the suspect's lawyer to interview the suspect or test DNA, and no indication of communication with the victim over the past three years." The DOJ concluded that "open" designations have effectively replaced "unfounded" as a way to create "the illusion of having made meaningful reforms to its procedures for identifying and classifying sexual assaults."
What's more, the "open" designations are preventing precisely the kind of transparency the department promised after The Sun's 2010 report. Although the Sexual Assault Response Team was at one time allowed to review open cases, it is now confined to examining those that have been closed. Thus, the patterns the DOJ was able to discover through its unfettered access to city case files have eluded public scrutiny.
And there's good reason police might not want outside observers to see the details of their investigations. The case files lacked basic documentation and reflected a shocking lack of even the most basic police work. The federal investigators discovered that police routinely fail to contact potential witnesses — both eyewitnesses and those people victims tell about their assaults after they occur. If a first attempt to contact a potential witness is unsuccessful, the report says, a second attempt is almost never made.
In one case, the victim and suspect had been to two bars before the assault, and she believed she had been drugged. She reported the crime immediately and had "injuries all over her body," the DOJ report says. Yet police did not interview bartenders or other potential witnesses, check surveillance video or test the victim for the presence of drugs in her system. In another, a taxi driver took an inebriated woman to his house rather than the address he had been given. The woman reported that he then raped her. The taxi driver admitted to police that he had taken her to his home, and a rape kit tested positive for semen, but the taxi driver was never subjected to a DNA test.
What do the sex crimes unit detectives' supervisors think of these lapses? There's no way to know. The DOJ found that the supervisory review forms in sex assault case files are almost always left blank.
Some of the most attention-grabbing elements of the DOJ's report were anecdotes indicating disdain for victims — an overheard conversation at a party in which a detective laments, "in homicide, there are real victims; all our cases are bull****," and an email exchange in which a prosecutor writes, "this case is crazy. . . I am not excited about charging it. This victim seems like a conniving little whore. (pardon my language)" and a police officer replies, "Lmao! I feel the same."
Given the DOJ's overwhelming evidence that Baltimore police consistently fall short of even the most basic efforts to investigate sexual assault cases, it's impossible to dismiss those examples as hearsay or isolated incidents. Since 2010, the department may have changed personnel, policies, procedures and training, but an attitude in which victims are often treated like liars and attackers like victims clearly hasn't changed.