Maryland Lawmakers Urge "External Review" Of Baltimore County Rape Cases

Two state delegates, Shelly Hettleman and Steve Lafferty, want to change how the Baltimore County Police Department handles rape cases after a BuzzFeed News investigation. They're also "prepared to support legislation" strengthening Maryland's rape law.

Two Maryland lawmakers have called for an outside audit of the way the Baltimore County Police Department handles rape investigations, following a BuzzFeed News investigation which showed that the department declares many rape reports “unfounded” after only minimal investigation.

The lawmakers, state delegates Shelly Hettleman and Steve Lafferty, also voiced support for changes to the state’s rape law to clarify that people can be charged with rape even if they did not commit or threaten violent assault, such as with their fists or a knife or gun, in the course of an attack.

"We are writing to express our concern about a number of issues related to the Baltimore County Police Department's handling of rape cases and the high number of cases deemed 'unfounded,'" the lawmakers, both Democrats from Baltimore County, wrote in a letter sent to the department police chief this week.

The BuzzFeed News investigation found that the department routinely labeled rape allegations as unfounded after little to no detective work at all. Officers writing the reports often dismissed accounts because, they said, the women did not fight back hard enough — or, as one police report put it, “did not resist to the best of her ability.”

In one case, a woman reported that her 250-pound assailant got on top of her after she rejected his sexual 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 wrote that “she could not specify how he would do that.” The case was closed as unfounded, which the FBI defines as “false or baseless.”

In response to the article, Baltimore County Police Chief Jim Johnson promised to "re-examine" three years of unfounded cases. In their letter to Johnson, Hettleman and Lafferty encouraged Johnson to "consider inviting an external entity" to review how the department classifies cases. The lawmakers pointed to Philadelphia, which is renowned for having changed the way it investigates rape — in part by inviting oversight from independent experts who don't have ties to the police department.

Baltimore County Police spokeswoman Elise Armacost did not immediately respond to a request for comment Wednesday evening.

Hettleman and Lafferty also voiced support for tweaks to the state's rape law. They said they were concerned about whether the department was "interpreting the standards for rape correctly" — in particular, how much force is required for sex to be considered rape.

Maryland's rape law requires not just a lack of consent but also "force or the threat of force.” Baltimore County officers often cited that provision of the law when determining that people who claimed they had been raped had not actually been victims of that crime.

A 2010 Maryland state Court of Appeals decision on that provision found that "force may exist without violence." But Hettleman and Lafferty said that legislation "will be introduced" to "more clearly articulate" that point.

Hettleman and Lafferty also expressed concern about the fact that Baltimore County was closing rape investigations without ever sending detectives from the Special Victims Unit to interview victims. BuzzFeed News found that the department labeled a number of cases as unfounded based on the victim's initial account given to a patrol officer. "It is difficult to fathom that this investigation can take place without [detectives] interviewing the victim," the lawmakers wrote.

Still, Hettleman and Lafferty commended Baltimore County for "its willingness to share information about these cases with the public, unlike other jurisdictions around the state." BuzzFeed News requested detailed case files for unfounded rape reports from more than a dozen police departments around the country with high rates of unfounded cases. Baltimore County was one of only two that provided detailed documents; the rest declined, including another large suburban Maryland police department, Montgomery County. Officials in that county could not be reached for comment Wednesday evening.

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