… For some, sex-crime investigation reforms appear slow …
By Justin Fenton, The Baltimore Sun
9:24 PM EDT, October 4, 2011
For the homeless, drug-addicted women Jacqueline Robarge works with, this summer in Baltimore was long and violent. Outreach workers with the nonprofit Power Inside heard at least eight accounts of sexual assault and rape, the most she could recall in her 10 years with the group.
In some of those cases, according to Robarge, the women said Baltimore police refused to take reports when they approached patrol officers to tell them what had happened.
Robarge’s small, Charles Village-based group has been tapped to work with a city task force formed to improve sexual assault investigations. The Sexual Assault Response Team, which includes police and women’s advocacy groups, is part of ongoing reforms spurred by The Baltimore Sun’s reporting on problems with how city police handle allegations of rape and sexual assault.
Those reforms include overhauling the department’s sex offense unit and training for detectives. New protocols have been implemented, barring the practice of patrol officers dismissing reports without at least documenting the allegations.
But Robarge said she fears that her clients — many of whom engage in prostitution — remain overlooked and that the Police Department’s culture change isn’t happening quickly enough.
“The women are not being believed,” Robarge said. “These are cases where women have directly engaged the police and nothing has been written down.”
None of her clients agreed to be interviewed for this article.
Because those reports were not made through the 911 system or documented, city officials declined to comment on Robarge’s allegations.
At a news conference Wednesday at City Hall, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and Police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III plan to announce a new sexual assault prevention campaign.
After The Sun revealed that Baltimore led the nation in the number of rape reports discarded by detectives, the number being recorded jumped by more than 50 percent in the first six months of this year. But victims’ advocates and others say more needs to done, noting continuing complaints about poor treatment by some detectives.
Robarge said she wants more representation on the Sexual Assault Response Team by her group or others that do similar work. With letters of support from the city, Robarge’s group secured an $82,000 grant from the governor’s office to assist the task force.
But she said she still feels like an outsider in the process. She made a presentation to the group but is not a member and said she has had trouble contacting police to talk about problems.
The mayor’s office said members of the Sexual Assault Response Team have “made progress but have a lot more work to do.”
“It is essential to build stronger relationships with community nonprofits that serve high-risk and underserved populations, and we look forward to working with Power Inside as well as other groups moving forward,” said Sheryl Goldstein, director of the Mayor’s Office on Criminal Justice.
Lisae Jordan of the Maryland Coalition Against Sexual Assault, which is a member of the response team, said there’s a desire to include as many voices as possible while keeping the membership manageable and focused.
“There’s a lot of groups that touch the issue of sexual assault, and there’s a desire to be inclusive and responsive,” Jordan said. “But we also need to make sure that there’s not [too many] people in the room. I think that’s an open question right now.”
Robarge said not all of her clients — due to fear, distrust or apathy — are willing to talk to detectives. But she thinks she can help police get important information, including tips she has been receiving about a possible serial offender.
The Sun reported last year that three out of 10 rape reports were categorized as false or baseless by detectives, and four out of 10 calls to 911 to report rapes were deemed “unfounded” by patrol officers and not forwarded to detectives.
Police immediately handed down an order that no calls could be labeled by patrol officers as “unfounded.” However, Robarge’s clients’ often don’t call 911.
“The police presence in the neighborhood is so prevalent that all women need to do is walk up to a beat officer,” she said. “But some of these officers are the same ones who move them along, arrest them for loitering and other nuisance crimes related to their homelessness.”
One of the chief complaints from those who work with sexual assault victims is a lack of compassion and understanding of issues that affect vulnerable women, experts say. Robarge said her clients often suffer problems related to abuse, mental illness or drug addiction.
The problem is not new. Robarge recalled an incident several years ago in which a woman came to Power Inside’s offices to report a crime to police in a comfortable environment. Robarge said five male officers showed up and refused to sit down. One twirled an espantoon. They told the woman they didn’t believe her.
“That experience is the exact experience that persists to this day,” Robarge said.
Goldstein said training for patrol officers is among the items on the response team’s to-do list.
Copyright © 2011, The Baltimore Sun