Why can't Baltimore police investigate all rapes like this?
By Tricia Bishop
Jun 20, 2019 | 12:20 PM
Baltimore police have pulled 115 patrol cars out of service as they investigate a reported rape that “may have involved” a department member.
To catch Richard Stephen Barnes, the man charged with impersonating an officer and raping a woman this month in Baltimore, police pulled more than 100 patrol cars from service to see if any matched the woman’s description.
They called for assistance from the department’s license plate reader unit and from the terrorism-focused Maryland Coordination and Analysis Center in examining images of vehicles in the area during the time of the assault on June 1.
They reviewed hundreds of hours of CCTV and other camera recordings, including more than 300 body-worn camera videos. And they hand-searched more than 1,600 Maryland Motor Vehicle Administration records to narrow down the suspects to one man: a 50-year-old security guard since suspended from his position at the Maryland Shock Trauma Center.
Imagine if every rape investigation were handled with the same vigor shown this one — the one in which the victim thought a police officer had committed the crime.
Of course, we know that hasn’t been the case historically in Baltimore.
In 2010, a Sun investigation found that city police routinely classified sexual assault claims as unfounded — more than 30% of them, five times the national average — without looking into them or bothering to submit evidence for testing.
Six years later, a sweeping Department of Justice report found that not much had changed. The Baltimore Police Department still “seriously and systematically under-investigates reports of sexual assault,” DOJ officials wrote. Furthermore, “the sexual assault investigations it does conduct are marked by practices that significantly compromise the effectiveness and impartiality of its response.”
One city Sex Offense Unit detective reportedly told colleagues at a party that “in homicide, there are real victims; all our cases are bull****” (he later walked the assessment back to “90%” B.S.). And another officer and city prosecutor, in e-mail correspondence to one another, deemed a sexual assault victim “a conniving little whore.”
More than half of the BPD’s rape cases lingered in an “open” status, often for years without investigation, the DOJ found; less than a quarter of its cases were closed due to arrest (half the national average); rape kit reviews were tested for evidence only 20% of the time; and officers “rarely, if ever” sought out witnesses or suspects for interview.
“BPD’s response to reports of sexual assault is, overall, grossly inadequte,” DOJ concluded in the August, 2016 report.
A month earlier, the Baltimore Police Department had implemented an updated and rather thin 6-page “rape and sexual assault” policy that largely focused on procedural details and the necessary requirements to find a sexual assault claim unfounded. At least it did make clear that officers shouldn’t ask a victim to take a lie detector test or be allowed to “close out sex offense calls for service without writing an incident report.”
The new policy, part of a requirement of the consent decree between the BPD and DOJ, is impressive, particularly in relation to the 2016 version. It opens with a lengthy acknowledgement that all sexual assault policies and procedures should be “trauma-informed, victim-centered” and “multi-disciplinary,” along with “unbiased and in compliance” nondiscrimination laws. Then it launches into thoughtful core principles behind the policy and concludes with color charts and an actual list of questions to ask “in order to conduct a thorough, offender-focused investigation of the crime.”
Open Baltimore data show that rapes, not including other kinds of sexual assaults, are happening in the city with a frequency as alarming as homicides: There were 105 rape claims through May of this year. Each of them deserves to be taken seriously and investigated with professionalism, sensitivity and urgency — regardless of whether an officer is implicated in the offense.
Police Commissioner Michael Harrison: Can we count on you?