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Baltimore police all but ignore reports of rape

Heaven help a woman in Baltimore who reports rape or sexual assault to the city's police. Odds are her complaint will be all but ignored and minimally investigated. Or it could be worse: for many who turn to the authorities, the tables are quickly turned. Officers engage in victim-blaming, suggesting the woman invited the assault, or, when a complaint is lodged, they will inflict on the assailant undue hardship.

To every appearance, in policy and in practice, the Baltimore police often simply do not care when women are sexually assaulted and raped.

That is the stark conclusion drawn from the Justice Department's report last week on the city's police force. While the report focuses on the stunning racial disparities in the city's policing and enforcement, it delivers an equally searing indictment of the department's overt gender bias.

The police department's attitude towards female victims of sexual crimes seems to range from a yawn to overt contempt. At a party attended by victims' advocates and police, a detective in the sex offence unit said that “in homicide there are real victims; all our cases are bull****”. An advocate overheard the remark and reported it to Justice Department investigators.

After rape kits are collected from victims, more than 80 per cent of them remain untested, languishing in the Baltimore Police Department's evidence pound.

In 2015, fewer than one in four rape investigations in the city ended with a suspect's arrest, a rate less than half the national average.

Routinely, the police do not bother contacting witnesses; they make little effort to garner physical evidence from the scene; they neglect to take DNA samples from suspects, or even to locate and question them.

The bias on the force involves not just negligence, as seen in the nonchalance towards rape cases, but unconstitutional and wanton strip-searches of individuals in public. In one instance recounted by Justice Department investigators, officers detained a woman in a routine traffic stop — she was missing a headlight — and ordered her to remove her clothes.

The report describes what happened next: “The female officer then put on purple latex gloves, pulled up the woman's shirt and searched around her bra.

Finding no weapons or contraband around the woman's chest, the officer then pulled down the woman's underwear and searched her anal cavity. This search again found no evidence of wrongdoing and the officers released the woman without charges.”

What will it take to effect a change in such a department? Hiring and training are good places to start. A little more than one fifth of the force's 2,600 sworn officers are female; it would help to hire more women. The department also needs internal controls to ensure that rapes and other sexual assaults are aggressively investigated, and it needs to discipline officers who let those cases slide.

Adjusting attitudes will be a titanic task in an agency that has become accustomed to a lack of accountability, verging on impunity.

Clear procedures and guidance must come from the top. It is far from certain that the force's present leadership is up to the task.

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Published August 15, 2016 at 9:00 am (Updated August 15, 2016 at 1:16 am)

Baltimore police all but ignore reports of rape

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