April 24, 2017 Liz Borkowski, MPH 0Comment

In September 2016, Alex Campbell and Katie J.M. Baker reported on an in-depth BuzzFeed News investigation that found Baltimore County detectives often failed to investigate rape reports. They wrote:

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.”

Baltimore County Police Department spokesperson Elise Armacost explained to BuzzFeed News, “saying no is not enough to support a rape charge”; Maryland’s law requires “force or the threat of force” by the perpetrator. Campbell and Baker looked into this:

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.

In February, Campbell and Baker reported that Baltimore County had revised some of the policies criticized in their article, and the Maryland legislature was considering three bills introduced in response to the BuzzFeed investigation:

Three different proposals have already been heard since the state’s legislative session began in January. One would state that an incident can be characterized as rape even if victims don’t physically resist their assailants; another would require outside audits of all police departments that classify rape allegations as unfounded at a rate more than 5 percentage points higher than the national average; a third would expand statewide police training standards for sexual assault cases.

“In Maryland we seem to have a disproportionate number of cases classified as unfounded,” said Del. Pamela Queen, a lawmaker pushing for the bills requiring audits and statewide training.

Baltimore County has already revised a number of the policies detailed in the BuzzFeed News article. Sex crimes detectives will now interview both victims and suspects in every rape case. And police will no longer have the authority to label cases as unfounded. Prosecutors will make those decisions instead.

Last week, Campbell and Baker reported that Maryland Governor Larry Hogan had signed the bill that specifies victims do not need to use physical force to resist assailants in order for an assault to be classified as rape. The other legislation has been passed and awaits Governor Hogan’s signature. However, the Baltimore Sun’s Erin Cox notes that the legislature failed to pass a bill that would have stripped rapists of parental rights to children conceived as a result of rape. That bill will likely be considered again.

President Trump has a habit of incorrectly applying a “fake news” label to stories or outlets he doesn’t like, but reporting that identifies problems with governmental entities has never been more important. Maryland’s passage of this legislation in response to BuzzFeed’s investigation is just one of many examples of how high-quality journalism can lead to improvements by spotlighting policies and practices that are unjust and harm people when they are at their most vulnerable. A free press remains essential to public health.

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