The October 2014 document, labeled “confidential,” is a patrol officer’s description of a rape reported to the Baltimore County Police Department, one of almost 150 reports made that year. Officer Sidney Pierce wrote that he met with a woman at the St. Agnes Hospital emergency room. That woman — whom BuzzFeed News is identifying by one of her initials, E., to protect her privacy — told him she had fallen asleep in her car after having too much to drink. That’s where the suspect found her, and he offered to let her sober up at his nearby house.
According to the report, E. accepted the man’s offer. She awoke, the officer wrote, “to find the suspect on top of her penetrating her vagina with his penis without protection.” Pierce’s report states the woman “asked the suspect to stop and tried to clench her legs closed unsuccessfully.” In the morning, the suspect forced E. to exchange numbers with him. That’s how E. had his full name and contact number, which she provided to Pierce. BuzzFeed News will refer to the suspect by one of his initials, D.
Later that day, according to the report, D. sent E. texts, including one in which he said he wondered if she had been sexually assaulted before because “people who have are very sexual and wet like you.” He also sent her a photo of his penis.
After Pierce met with E., he reported her account up the chain of command. Someone who never met E. — and never even talked to her — decided what happened next.
Within hours, the case was labeled “CLOSED.” The rape E. reported was ruled “unfounded,” which the FBI defines as “false or baseless.” As far as the Baltimore County Police Department was concerned, E. had never been raped at all.
E. was never interviewed again. She discovered her case had been closed so quickly only when BuzzFeed News showed her the police file. “It is upsetting,” she said. “They just did not do their job.”
D. — her alleged rapist — never knew he had been accused. "So why am I just hearing about this?” D. asked. He told BuzzFeed News he couldn’t even remember who E. was, and that he had never raped anyone.
But D. had previously been arrested and charged with first-degree rape. It was four years before E. made her report, and it was in a nearby jurisdiction, in a case that never went to trial. Pierce made no note of it in his report.
Within a year of dropping E.’s case, officers would get another call. About D. From another terrified woman.
The Baltimore County Police Department is one of a number of law enforcement agencies nationwide with an alarming record of dismissing rape cases, according to a BuzzFeed News analysis of FBI statistics. These departments routinely mark an extraordinary percentage of rape allegations as false or baseless — "unfounded.”
In Scottsdale, Arizona, for example, 46% of rape reports were ruled unfounded between 2009 and 2014. In Oxnard, California, more than half of all rape allegations were classified as unfounded. In Pittsburgh, the number is 30%. And in Baltimore County, it’s 34%.
It is implausible that this many victims are making up rape allegations, experts say, raising crucial questions about how seriously police treat sexual assault claims — and how likely they are to be biased against women who report them. In fact, the national average for unfounded rapes among police departments nationwide is 7%. (While this data isn’t perfect, it offers the best available window into police practices nationwide. An explanation of BuzzFeed News’ analysis can be found here.)
To understand how and why police toss out rape cases, BuzzFeed News requested detailed case files for "unfounded" rape reports from more than a dozen police departments with high rates of these cases. Most declined, but Baltimore County provided a year’s worth of documents from 2014.
It amounted to a trove of 42 case files. And an analysis found disturbing patterns:
- Police routinely did little to no detective work at all, labeling rape reports unfounded after cursory interviews with the victims.
- Detectives who are trained to handle sex crimes often never even met or spoke with the alleged victim, but instead dismissed the allegation simply after reviewing a case report made by a beat cop.
- The officers writing the reports often dismissed rape allegations because they believed the women did not fight back hard enough — or, as one police report put it, "did not resist to the best of her ability.” Even if a woman submits to sex against her will because she fears for her life, these reports indicate, her assailant hasn’t committed a crime and can walk away without so much as a police interrogation.
The Baltimore County Police Department defended its practices, saying that it is constrained by the narrow language of Maryland’s rape law.
But E.’s story, found in the documents obtained by BuzzFeed News, epitomizes how quickly police can dismiss a rape claim — and how an accused suspect who is not investigated can soon threaten women again.
Baltimore County is a sprawling and diverse area with a population of 830,000, larger than the city of the same name. But there’s far less violent crime in the county than the city of Baltimore, and the county police force has received far less media attention.
The city’s rape investigators came under scrutiny in 2010, when the Baltimore Sun found that city police were classifying rape allegations as unfounded more than any other American city of its size. In response, the city changed its policies and hired a new commander to oversee how rapes were investigated. Its unfounded rate dropped precipitously, to below the national average.
But just next door, Baltimore County’s rate remained high, the highest in the nation for a police department of its size.
Of the 42 unfounded rape reports obtained by BuzzFeed News, 13 of them were dismissed by the police for a straightforward reason — the people who made the allegation admitted lying, or there was strong evidence that contradicted them. A 14th unfounded rape report has no details at all.
But the remaining 28 rape reports open a unique window into police practices — and biases. One remarkable finding: In at least 15 cases, more than half, the police wrote that the victims didn’t fight back hard enough.
One woman told the police that her 250-pound assailant got on top of her after she rejected his advances. She covered her mouth and vagina with her hands, but he was able to pull her spandex shorts aside to have sex with her. She said she was afraid that the man would hurt her, but the police noted that “she could not specify how he would do that.” Ruled unfounded.
When another woman said her rapist put his hands around her neck, a detective said she wasn’t forced, and “she could breathe normally.” Ruled unfounded.
In yet another case, a woman reported that a man forced her to have sex several times. She said she told him no repeatedly, and he told her, “If you scream, I will kill you.” She said he dragged her around and raped her on a gravel road. The officer even noted that there were bruises consistent with her story. Yet this was still not enough for the police, who wrote that the victim did not try “to push, kick, or use any other force.” Ruled unfounded.
The Baltimore County Police Department defended its decision to drop these and all the other unfounded cases without any further investigation. The department looks at every rape report seriously, spokeswoman Elise Armacost told BuzzFeed News in an email. "We take every victim at her word," she wrote.
But “saying no is not enough to support a rape charge,” she said. Maryland’s rape law requires not only a lack of consent but also “force or the threat of force.”
Therefore, it was not enough for the suspect to threaten, “If you scream, I will kill you,” Armacost told BuzzFeed News in an email. The department was right to close that case, she said, because there was no evidence the attacker “really intended physical harm.”
In the case where the man put his hands around the woman’s neck, Armacost said, he took his hands away when she asked him to. “She did not physically resist,” Armacost added. “Absent such resistance, a case does not warrant additional investigation under Maryland law.”
But Maryland’s highest court has repeatedly come to a different conclusion. In one case, the victim’s only acts of resistance were to repeatedly say no and to push away the man’s hand when he fondled her. Asked why she didn't do anything more, the woman responded that she was terrified. She was sexually assaulted, the court ruled, stating that “force may exist without violence.”
Byron Warnken, a criminal law professor at the University of Baltimore School of Law, reviewed several Baltimore County case files for BuzzFeed News and said the police are misinterpreting the law. If a woman “honestly and reasonably believes that if she resists, she will be subjected to harm, there is no requirement to resist,” he said.
Many states, not just Maryland, have rape laws that require more than just a lack of consent. But "the way the law is written does not excuse investigators for not completing a thorough investigation," said Tom Tremblay, a retired police chief who consults with law enforcement nationwide on how to respond to sexual assault cases.
In May 2010, well before his alleged encounter with E., D. was charged with rape. A 23-year-old woman told police that D. invited her over to someone's home to hang out. D. pushed her onto a black mattress on the floor of the basement, according to police, and pulled her pants off. “If you say anything I will really hurt you,” he said to her, she told police. He put on a condom, she told police, climbed on her back, and put his hand over her mouth.
She called 911 soon after she escaped. “That was the worst day in my life,” she told BuzzFeed News.
The incident occurred within the city limits of Baltimore, and the city police moved quickly. A detective used D.’s phone number to trace his whereabouts. When the police interrogated him, he said the sex was consensual.
But the woman had been examined by staff at a hospital, who in addition to administering a rape kit had found that she had marks on her neck and “petechial hemorrhaging” in both eyes, which can be caused by strangulation. The day after the incident, D. was charged with first-degree rape, which carries up to life in prison. He sat in jail for more than six months awaiting trial.
Then the case came to an abrupt halt. The alleged victim told BuzzFeed News that she didn’t want to cooperate with prosecutors because she was scared.
D.’s case was “stetted,” a term for an agreement in which the defendant agrees to minor stipulations but is not convicted of any crime. Prosecutors declined to say what happened.
D. denied that he raped the woman. He told BuzzFeed News that she made the accusation in retaliation for some hurtful things he’d said to her during an argument. His lawyer had told a judge that the alleged victim had been telling people she would drop the case for a couple hundred dollars, and that, in the past, the alleged victim had made accusations leading to charges against other men, only to drop them. D. cited this as evidence she’s a liar.
As for the woman’s injuries, D. denied he caused them. “Maybe she wrapped her hands around her own neck,” he said.
When E. was interviewed by the police officer at the hospital, Pierce, she didn’t detect any skepticism from him — in fact, she told BuzzFeed News that he was compassionate and understanding. And she believed he was going to move her case forward.
So days afterward, she emailed Pierce a two-page written statement with more detail about the incident — for example, that D. had pushed her when she told him she wanted to stop having sex. She also sent screenshots of her text conversation with D.
She didn’t know her efforts were in vain because her case was already closed. Nor did she realize Pierce had little to do with what happened to her case.
As the responding officer dispatched to respond to E.’s case, Pierce had passed on her initial account to the department’s Special Victims Unit, which is trained to investigate sex offenses. Without ever speaking to E., the detective there advised Pierce “to document this incident as unfounded” and shut the investigation down, police records show. The detective did it in the remote way a bank officer might read through a loan application and dismiss it without meeting the applicant.
It’s routine for Baltimore County SVU detectives to drop cases in this manner. In 19 of the 42 police reports reviewed by BuzzFeed News, detectives either didn’t take up cases referred to them by responding officers or specifically instructed the officers to immediately close them as unfounded. It’s unclear how many of these women, like E., had no idea their cases were summarily closed by police.
Police spokesperson Armacost maintained that Baltimore County police officers “investigate every case of sexual assault,” but she conceded that SVU detectives don’t always bother interviewing victims after reviewing their initial statements. The SVU only investigates cases where they determine that the victim’s account and other preliminary evidence meets the legal standard for rape, she said — even if they come to that conclusion without further review.
But modern best practices instruct officers to do the exact opposite. “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,” according to guidelines issued by the International Association of Chiefs of Police. Rape victims can be reluctant to go into full detail because of the stigma associated with the crime, and often have fragmented memories that make them unable to do so.
When Baltimore County detectives decide to dismiss rape allegations on the basis of a preliminary statement, they do it even if the suspect has been charged with rape in the past, as D. had been. Armacost defended this, arguing that if there wasn’t enough force for it to count as rape, then the suspect’s prior history is “largely irrelevant.”
Armacost also insisted police did the right thing in E.’s case. “Though the victim said she asked the suspect to stop, no force was used,” she said.
The chief county prosecutor, Scott Shellenberger, defended the police, saying that E.’s case would have been “extremely difficult to successfully prosecute” for the same reason: The police report stated that “no force was used.”
But when BuzzFeed News showed that report to E., she said it was inconsistent with her account of what happened. She had been clear in her emailed statement that D. had indeed used physical force. The police report also stated that E. didn’t want to press charges — even though in E.’s emails to Pierce, shared with BuzzFeed News, she specifically asked Pierce to let her know what prosecutors thought of the case.
“The state’s attorney has not replied to me,” Pierce emailed E. nearly a month later. “In this incident I don’t believe they would prosecute.”
Shellenberger, the state’s attorney, confirmed to BuzzFeed News that the police did not refer this case to his office.
Police departments nationwide have been criticized for mishandling rape claims: New Orleans; Missoula, Montana; and the city of Baltimore all faced Department of Justice probes in the past six years. "The problems Baltimore County police have in handling rape cases are are emblematic of what goes on in police departments across the country," said Corey Rayburn Yung, a law professor at University of Kansas School of Law, who studies policing and rape nationwide.
Tremblay, the former police chief, said some investigators spend too much time probing the victim’s behavior rather than the suspect’s. “When the bank gets robbed, you don’t focus on the bank,” Tremblay said. “You focus on the person who went into the bank and robbed it.”
Other departments haven't trained their officers to meet modern standards in sexual assault cases, he said, so they can be daunted by cases where facts are complex.
The reason for due diligence is obvious: When detectives too quickly dismiss difficult cases, they risk neglecting evidence that could crack a case wide open. They might even fail to nab a serial rapist.
Police should have at least consulted with prosecutors in E.’s case, said Warnken, the Baltimore law professor. He also said it was odd they didn’t interview the suspect. “The cops should have approached this guy,” he said. “What happened that night?”
Directly behind the building where E. said she was raped, past a row of trees, is a four-lane suburban thoroughfare. On the other side of that road sits a 7-Eleven. Seven months after E. made her report, two female co-workers were chatting in the parking lot.
Court records describe how D., clearly intoxicated, walked up to the front of the store and urinated in clear view of everyone inside. Then D. accosted the two women, making vulgar comments. The two asked him to leave, but he refused. He told one he wanted to “fuck” her. “You are cute enough to have sex with,” he said.
Then the women saw the man reach into his pocket and pull out a knife. “What are you gonna do!” D. yelled.
When police officers arrived, D. was confronting a third woman, who was in tears.
Earlier this year, D. pleaded guilty to one assault charge. He told BuzzFeed News that what he did that night was largely the result of drinking way too much. “I mean, I was tore up,” he said. “My intention wasn’t to scare anybody.”
Though he pleaded guilty, he told BuzzFeed News that he wasn’t using the knife to threaten the women — he just happened to have it in his hand when he got out of the car to urinate. He added that while he did flirt with one of the women, he didn’t use the word “fuck.”
This spring, D. appeared before a judge to learn his sentence. “Obviously these facts are extremely disturbing,” the prosecutor, Erin Anello, told the judge. D.’s behavior was “unacceptable and outrageous,” Anello said. “I can’t imagine how fearful the people in that gas station would have been.”
But Anello’s tone then softened as she made note of D.’s past. He didn’t have any criminal record going back to 2000. D. did have a recent DUI, but otherwise he was clean.
The judge never knew about E.’s unfounded rape allegation, of course. If the Baltimore County police had spent more than a few hours on it, things might have turned out very differently. As it was, the judge put D. on supervised probation and ordered him to stay away from the 7-Eleven.
D. walked away from the courthouse a free man. ●
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
Contact Alex Campbell at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Katie Baker is an investigative reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York.
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