One day after a BuzzFeed News investigation exposed how the Baltimore County Police Department declares many rape reports "unfounded" after only minimal investigation, the department has promised to "re-examine" three years' worth of such reports.
BuzzFeed News's investigation "raises valid concerns about the handling of reported rape cases in Baltimore County," Police Chief Jim Johnson said in a statement released Friday afternoon. “While each of these cases already has been investigated, we will take a fresh look to ensure that the investigation was handled properly and that justice was done.”
The BuzzFeed News investigation was based on the Baltimore County Police Department's files for 42 rape cases labeled unfounded during 2014. It found that the department routinely did little to no detective work at all, labeling rape reports unfounded after only cursory interviews with the victims, and without any interviews with the alleged assailant. Officers writing the reports often dismissed accounts because, they said, the women did not fight back hard enough — or, as one police report put it, "did not resist to the best of her ability."
On average, from 2009 to 2014, the department has categorized more than one third of all rape allegations as unfounded, a term the FBI defines as "false or baseless." The national average is closer to 7%, and experts said this discrepancy raises concerns about whether Baltimore County's rape cases are being handled properly.
Among the cases that the police will review involves a woman referred to in the article as "E.," who told the police in 2014 that a man had found her asleep at the wheel after a night of drinking, invited her into his home, then raped her. The case was closed within hours. The suspect in the case had been charged with rape in 2010, and months after E.'s allegation, he was arrested for showing a knife at a 7-Eleven parking lot and telling a woman he wanted to "fuck" her.
In his statement, Johnson said that he has "asked detectives and the Office of the State’s Attorney to take another look at this case." He said that the woman initially did not want to press charges but "apparently changed her mind." E. maintains that she never indicated that she did not want to press charges, but wanted to know the prosecutor's intentions. Emails she provided to BuzzFeed News show that she made repeated inquiries with the officer who wrote up her incident report, pressing him to see if prosecutors would move forward with the case.
Johnson took issue with other parts of the BuzzFeed News article, saying that it "contains numerous misrepresentations."
"Contrary to the headline of the Buzzfeed article," he said, every person who reports a rape gets an interview with "a Baltimore County Police Officer."
The article's headline—"When Detectives Dismiss Rape Reports Before Investigating Them"—addressed a different matter, however: not whether officers interview rape victims, but what happens when those officers pass their reports up the chain to detectives who have been trained to handle sexual assault cases. In many cases, those detectives did not interview the victim, let alone the alleged perpetrator, yet still ordered the cases closed. That practice runs contrary to the guidelines issued by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, which state: “A report should not be labeled ‘false’ or unfounded as a result of the initial victim interview or perceived victim reaction to the sexual assault.”
Johnson also took issue with BuzzFeed News' analysis that in 15 of the cases labeled as unfounded, the police wrote that the women did not fight back hard enough. Johnson said that his department reviewed this and found that it is "not accurate."
In the documents reviewed by BuzzFeed News, one officer wrote that a case would be unfounded in part "Based on the fact" that the victim "did not resist." In another, the officer wrote that "there was not enough evidence of a struggle or enough resistance to indicate a rape occurred."
In a case in which a woman reported that a stranger had pushed her up against a fence and held her there while he pulled down her shorts and raped her, the officer noted the victim "did not say anything to the subject, nor did she attempt to stop the subject from engaging in the sexual act....She advised that she did not yell or say anything." Yet another states that the victim "didn't fight back because she was scared and didn't know what to do." And in one more, the officer wrote that the victim "did not offer any physical resistance to the alleged assault as required by MD case law."
According to Byron Warnken, a criminal law professor at the University of Baltimore School of Law, Maryland's legal standard for rape does not require that the woman try to fight off her attacker. If she “honestly and reasonably believes that if she resists, she will be subjected to harm, there is no requirement to resist,” he said.
The department's review was ordered by Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz. "As a former prosecutor, my expectation is that every allegation of sexual assault be given thorough professional review," Kamenetz said in a statement. "I am extremely concerned about these serious allegations, and I have directed Chief Johnson to provide me with additional information about how the department has and will handle rape cases."
Alex Campbell is the deputy UK investigations editor for BuzzFeed News and is based in London. His secure PGP fingerprint is C99D 2577 74B1 8DF0 6E90 3CD7 DFF4 C0F2 2492
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Katie Baker is an investigative reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York.
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