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Justice Department: Baltimore police response to sexual assault is "grossly inadequate"

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A new report by the US Department of Justice found that the Baltimore Police Department is an absolute disaster of systemic racial bias, unconstitutional practices, and poor community relations. So it may not come as a surprise that Baltimore police are also terrible at handling sexual assault cases.

The Justice Department found that BPD’s response to reports of sexual assault are “grossly inadequate” and “raise serious concerns about gender bias in BPD’s treatment of victims of sexual assault.”

Baltimore police just don’t seem to take many of their sexual assault cases seriously, as these awful anecdotes illustrate (emphasis added):

One victim advocate told us about a detective in the BPD Sex Offense Unit making comments at a party, in the company of BPD officers and victim advocates, that, “in homicide, there are real victims; all our cases are bullshit.” When another person suggested the detective soften the statement, the detective added, “Ok, 90 percent.” We also reviewed e-mail correspondence between a BPD officer and a prosecutor in which they openly expressed their contempt for and disbelief of a woman who had reported a sexual assault: the prosecutor wrote that “this case is crazy. . . I am not excited about charging it. This victim seems like a conniving little whore. (pardon my language).”; the BPD officer replied, “Lmao! I feel the same.”

Officers ask victim-blaming questions like, “Why are you messing that guy’s life up?” They use male pronouns and degrading language for transgender women; one female officer said she was “not searching that” when asked to search a trans woman. Officers also disregard reports of sexual assault from sex workers, who are particularly vulnerable to assault — even when the evidence is very clear-cut.

BPD’s investigation tactics come off as downright lazy and negligent in the report

Even though sexual assault is often considered a “he said, she said” crime, there is usually some kind of corroborating evidence: someone who talked to the victim after the assault, people who saw them together at the bar, text messages, and the like. But BPD made “little, if any effort” to corroborate victims’ accounts with this kind of evidence. Officers failed to interview “outcry” witnesses who heard about the attack from the victim immediately afterward, and police even failed to review surveillance footage from a bar where one victim was allegedly drugged.

Some of the omissions are even more outrageous. In one case, a suspect was actually identified based on a woman’s description — and the detective made no effort to contact the suspect. In another case, a woman said she was raped by a taxi driver after he drove her to his own home. BPD interviewed the taxi driver, who admitted to taking the woman home. But even though a rape kit was performed on the woman and semen was found, the police didn’t bother to get a DNA sample from the driver to confirm the semen was his.

The statistics on case closures, unsurprisingly, are also dismal. Only 17 percent of BPD’s rape cases were closed due to an arrest, which is less than half the national average. The department tests fewer than one in five rape kits and sometimes waits months to do so. More than half of its rape cases, 56 percent, remain open. A lot of those cases seem to be open in name only, with no recent activity other than the initial preliminary investigation.

Troublingly, the Justice Department thinks that BPD is classifying many of its cases as “open” as a trick to avoid scrutiny. In 2010, the department came under fire because it classified cases as “unfounded” five times more often than the national average — which should only be done if a case is actually found to be false or baseless after an investigation. The percentage of “unfounded” cases has dropped since then, but it appears from the data that Baltimore police may just be taking the cases they would have dismissed as “unfounded” and instead labeling them as “open” and ignoring them.

Many police departments have these kinds of problems. Baltimore is just especially bad.

Baltimore isn’t the only police department that has problems with sexual assault investigations. It’s a nationwide problem that large numbers of rape kits go untested, for instance. And it’s very common for police officers to treat rape victims with undue suspicion, as my colleague Dara Lind has reported:

Police have historically thought that false rape allegations are much more common than they actually are. (One study of the Philadelphia Police Department from the 1960s found that officers thought that 75 to 90 percent of rape claims were false; the actual proportion found in the study was, at most, 21 percent.) So it makes sense that they're going to be skeptical of each individual allegation. But this is self-perpetuating: the more common an officer thinks false rape claims are, the more likely he is to be skeptical of each new allegation; the more likely he is to conclude that the allegation is false; the higher the numbers of false allegations will be.

Yet the best available evidence shows that only between 2 and 8 percent of rape reports are false or baseless. And assuming otherwise leads to the kinds of bad investigative practices seen in Baltimore, like failing to seek corroborating evidence or asking victim-blaming questions.

Even so, Baltimore still falls well below the national average when it comes to solving rape cases. So Baltimore’s problem with sexual assault investigations is similar to its problem with systemic racial bias: not at all unique in American policing, just a particularly bad example.