In a report released on August 10, 2016, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) criticized the Baltimore Police Department (BPD) for violating the constitutional and legal rights of Baltimore residents. The DOJ also identified an alarming pattern of negligence in the BPD’s handling of sexual assault cases. The report found that in such cases, the BPD failed:
- To treat survivors appropriately during interrogations. BPD officers asked questions that placed blame on sexual assault survivors, implied that survivors should feel responsible for the consequences their rapists faced, discredited survivors who did not report their assault immediately, and displayed broad skepticism about reports of sexual assault, especially those made by survivors involved in sex work.
- To collect evidence and contact witnesses. The BPD often did not try to contact witnesses in sexual assault cases, even when they were easily identifiable, and rarely collected additional evidence to corroborate reports, including readily available evidence like surveillance videos.
- To identify or investigate suspects. The BPD made “minimal to no effort” to find, contact, or interrogate suspects, even when the suspects had already been identified. Additionally, the BPD failed to identify possible serial rapists, even in cases with similar circumstances.
- To submit rape kits for testing. The BPD tested rape kits in just 15% of sexual assault cases between 2010 and 2014. Maryland law does not require law enforcement agencies to test rape kits. BPD detectives must make a request to have a kit tested by a lab; in these cases, the DOJ report found long delays in testing and results.
This is not the first time that the BPD has been criticized for mishandling sexual assault cases.
In 2010, the Baltimore Sun reported an alarming drop in the number of sexual assault cases reported by the BPD, falling nearly 80% over 15 years, as compared to a national decline of 8% over the same period. The BPD also classified over 30% of closed cases each year as “unfounded,” meaning they did not believe that a crime had actually occurred. This unfounded rate was five times the national average that year.
In 2010, faced with these statistics, Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake ordered an audit of sexual assault reports submitted in the previous 18 months, which found that half of the unfounded cases should have been classified and investigated as crimes. Following this investigation, the city established a review process to reform the BPD’s sexual assault investigations and conduct regular audits of active cases. In 2015, the BPD reported only 6.6% of cases closed as unfounded. Based on these statistics, as well as the fact that over half of all sexual assault cases remained open in 2015, the DOJ report suggests that the BPD was intentionally keeping cases open to reduce the rate of unfounded cases and to create the illusion of meaningful reform efforts.
The publication of this DOJ report offers a critical opportunity for reform in Baltimore. In the coming months, the DOJ and the city will negotiate a legally enforceable consent decree to address the issues raised in the report. According to the Agreement in Principle, which lays out the guidelines for the decree, one of the key areas for reform will be the BPD’s response to sexual assault, including requirements for officer training and new standards for investigations. Notably, standards for rape kit collection, tracking, and testing are not listed as needed reforms.
Joyful Heart stands ready to help the BPD reform its policies for rape kit collection, tracking, and testing. To learn more about the untested rape kit backlog in Baltimore, please see our Baltimore city page.
ENDTHEBACKLOG is a program of the Joyful Heart Foundation to shine a light on the backlog of untested rape kits throughout the United States. Our goal is to end this injustice by conducting groundbreaking research identifying the extent of the nation’s backlog and best practices for eliminating it, expanding the national dialogue on rape kit testing through increased public awareness, engaging communities and government agencies and officials and advocating for comprehensive rape kit reform legislation and policies at the local, state and federal levels. We urge you to learn more about the backlog, where it exists and why it matters. Help us send the message that we must take rape seriously.