The scathing report on the Baltimore Police Department (BPD) issued by the Department of Justice last week highlights victims of police misconduct not typically discussed: sexual assault survivors.
The Department of Justice (DOJ) found that Baltimore police routinely degrade victims and “seriously and systematically” fail to investigate reports of sexual assault. According to the DOJ, “officers and detectives in BPD’s Sex Offense Unit often question victims in a manner that puts the blame for the sexual assault on the victim’s shoulders—for example, with questions suggesting the victims should feel personally responsible for the potential consequences of a criminal report on a suspect or for having engaged in behavior that invited the assault.”
The DOJ found evidence that a detective in the Sex Offense Unit described 90 percent of sexual assault allegations as “bullshit,” and a prosecutor referred to a victim as a “conniving little whore.”
Unsurprisingly, the DOJ found that BPD “seriously and systematically” fails to investigate sexual assault, frequently making no effort to identify witnesses or submit rape kits for testing. As a result, their rate for closing rape cases is roughly half the national average.
In addition to consistently disregarding rape reports filed by victims involved in sex work, some officers routinely targeted those individuals, coercing sexual favors in exchange for immunity from arrest, or cash or drugs.
“None of this is a surprise to us,” said Katherine Spillar, executive director of the Feminist Majority Foundation who has led the research for the Foundation’s National Center for Women & Policing. “The under-representation of women in the BPD and police departments across the country means that too often departments overlook or ignore crimes that disproportionately impact women. The research shows that women officers take more seriously and respond more effectively to crimes of violence against women,” Spillar continued.
“Unfortunately, the DOJ’s report fails to proscribe a more effective solution – hiring dramatically more women as police officers. And there’s the added benefit that women officers engage far less often in excessive use of force and have better relations overall with the communities they serve,” continued Spillar.
When some victims of sexual assault are asked why they chose not to pursue a police report, they respond with a fear that no one will believe them, despite data from the National Center for the Prosecution of Violence Against Women showing that only 2 to 8 percent of rape accusations are false.
Jaqueline Robarge, founder of the anti-violence nonprofit Power Inside, said of BPD’s disparaging remarks towards sexual assault survivors, “It ensures that they won’t report future assaults. And most importantly, it allows violent predators to continue to prey on women specifically for their vulnerabilities. Those women include black women who are already being treated poorly by the police, sex workers, homeless women and women who may have a health issue, like addiction or mental illness.”
In 2010, the Baltimore Sun reported that BPD had the highest rate in the nation for police discarding rape allegations, five times the national average. Despite launching a review team six years ago to oversee reforms to the Sex Offense Unit, the DOJ report found that there has been practically no correction to the department’s policies and practices.
The Feminist Majority Foundation’s National Center for Women and Policing has promoted increasing the numbers of women at all ranks of law enforcement as a strategy to combat police brutality and authoritarian cultures.