Audit: Baltimore County needs to improve sexual assault investigations

Officials say progress has been made, issues reflect those in other departments nationwide

Catherine Rentz
Baltimore Sun

BALTIMORE, Md. — For the second time in less than three years, a special review found Baltimore County authorities need to do a better job investigating and prosecuting sexual assault investigations.

The Baltimore County Sexual Assault Investigations Task Force, formed in February at the behest of County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr., concluded that law enforcement rarely tested evidence from rape cases or charged cases where victims delayed reporting, and still considered whether victims physically resisted when pursuing investigations and prosecutions, even though a recent law clarified such resistance is not necessary to prove that a crime was committed.

“For far too long, local jurisdictions have not done enough to ensure survivors are receiving the support they deserve,” Olszewski wrote in an email to The Baltimore Sun. “People deserve to know that when they are the victims of sexual assault our law enforcement agencies will respond with every resource at our disposal to bring justice.”

Olszewski, who ran on a platform of greater transparency, announced the formation of the task force following criticism of the county’s sexual assault investigations, including the controversial practice of giving waivers to victims, which release police from the duty of investigating — a practice that has since ended.

The task force audited 213 sexual assault cases reported between 2016 and 2018 (out of a total of 649 reported during that three-year period). The selected cases consisted of all first-degree sexual assault cases and a selection of second-degree sexual assault cases that detectives had dismissed or cleared.

“The issues that we see in Baltimore County are similar to a lot of jurisdictions,” said Sheryl Goldstein, a police reform expert who chaired the task force and has conducted similar reviews in Baltimore City and Cleveland.

One of the key issues task force members found was an apparent reluctance by law enforcement to pursue cases where women could not prove they fought their assailants, or demonstrated a physical resistance to the assault.

Many women do not fight rapists either because they freeze or because they fear that fighting back could lead to further harm, said Lt. Brian Edwards, who took over the county police department’s Special Victims Unit in May 2018 and served on the task force.

Officers’ hesitancy to charge cases in which victims did not physically resist suspects was one of the main issues identified in a 2017 audit of unfounded Baltimore County rape cases. That audit found more suspects would have been charged by police had there been a better understanding that physical resistance by the victim is not required to prove that a crime was committed. State lawmakers revised the criminal rape law that year to clarify physical resistance is not necessary to prove a crime.

“It’s absolutely shocking that Baltimore County police and prosecutors ignored the law, disregarded previous recommendations, and continued to fail victims of sexual assault,” said Lisae Jordan, executive director of the Maryland Coalition Against Sexual Assault. Jordan was one of the two outside experts who audited cases in the 2017 review and lobbied for the legal clarifications in sexual assault crimes. Jordan was not on the current task force, but has reviewed the report.

“Among the most distressing findings is that cases involving delayed reporting are rarely charged,” Jordan said. “This ignores the reality that most survivors delay reporting, so this practice effectively denies justice to survivors and allows sex offenders to go free.”

Edwards however said many of the issues identified in both reviews are already being addressed.

“Some people thought we hit the pause button, but we have already begun training,” he said. “The victim-centered approach is the over-arching approach.”

Edwards said that there are several valid reasons why detectives would ask victims if they fought back, but that does not mean they view it as a necessity to charge someone with crime.

“In the past, officers may have assumed victims had to fight or flight,” Edwards said. Today, with more knowledge about the impact of trauma on victims’ reactions, Edwards said, “they understand it’s fight, flight or freeze.”

The task force also reviewed the procedures for analyzing rape kits and found only about 15 rape kits were tested each year over the last three years. Due to reforms mandated by state legislators such as Del. Shelley Hettleman, a Democrat from Baltimore County, police will now be required to test between 100 and 150 rape kits a year.

The change, Edwards said, will enable them to better detect serial rapist patterns.

Task force members also found that neither the Baltimore County police nor the State’s Attorney’s Office had formal written policies on rape and sexual assault investigations. The audit also found police did not consult with prosecutors on at least half to three-quarters of the cases.

Patrol officers also had potentially problematic discretion when responding to 911 calls for sexual assault. Nearly 200 emergency calls were handled and closed at the patrol level, according to an independent review of calls by John Skinner, a Towson University criminal justice professor and a retired Baltimore City deputy police commissioner. Skinner recommended the department eliminate the level of discretion officers have.

The 79-page report will be released Friday afternoon at the task force’s last public meeting. It includes a list of 23 recommendations, including trauma-informed training for law enforcement, regular audits, formal written sexual assault investigative policies modeled after those recommended by the International Association of Chiefs of Police and better communication between police and prosecutors.

“These recommendations will not sit on a shelf,” Olszewski wrote. “My administration is committed to resolving these issues through new support and policy changes.”

Goldstein noted that although these types of task force reviews focus on systemic issues, it is important to recognize the good work happening on a regular basis, especially in the first-degree rape investigations.

“It shouldn’t be lost that there was some work that was very, very good and resulted in conviction of suspects who committed terrible crimes,” Goldstein said. “The way sexual assaults are being handled is something that is changing and progressing in a positive way in this country and in the county.”

Besides Goldstein and Edwards, task force members included David Thomas, International Association of Chiefs of Police program manager; Rosalyn Branson, CEO of TurnAround, Inc.; Laura Clary, GBMC manager of Sexual Assault Forensic Examination program; John Cox, Baltimore County State’s Attorney’s Office deputy state’s attorney; and Nadia BenAissa, UMBC student and co-chair of the school’s survivor advocacy group We Believe You.

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