How Police Still Fail Rape Victims

A new Justice Department report exposes how the Baltimore P.D. isn't doing enough for victims of sexual assault – but they're not the only ones

Department of Justice's scathing report of the Baltimore City Police Department concluded that officers were pervasively abusing their power in bluntly racist and gender-biased ways. Credit: Justin Tallis/AFP/Getty

Last week, the Department of Justice released a scathing report of the Baltimore City Police Department, concluding that officers were pervasively abusing their power in bluntly racist and gender-biased ways. "We found that [the police department] has engaged in a pattern or practice of serious violations of the U.S. Constitution and federal law," wrote Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General Vanita Gupta, head of the Civil Rights Division, "that has disproportionately harmed Baltimore's African-American community and eroded the public's trust in the police."

In addition to illuminating these racist outcomes, the report also shed light on police failures related to the treatment of sexual assault victims, overwhelming women and overwhelmingly black. Investigators found that the department treats victims of sexual assault with "undue skepticism," and then went on to cite examples of officers dismissing assault, mocking or insulting survivors and harassing victims.

One officer asked a woman bringing a rape charge, "Why are you messing that guy's life up?" In another case, an officer is described laughing when a prosecutor calls a victim a "conniving little whore." In an example of a practice documented in other states, a woman pulled over by officers for a traffic violation was publicly strip-searched; officers performed a body cavity search by the side of the road. One officer in the sex crimes unit explained, "In homicide, there are real victims; all our [rape] cases are bullshit." ("All" was later revised by the same officer to "90 percent.") This report exists alongside the facts that between 2010 and 2014 only 15 percent of rape kits gathered by the city were processed and only 17 percent of sexual assault reports resulted in arrests.

While many people are outraged and horrified by the findings of the new DOJ report, what it found is not rare. Studies – and a regular stream of disturbing examples – consistently expose systemic problems in police treatment of sexual assault victims: harassing treatment of victims, the downgrading and miscoding of rape, failures to investigate cases, repeated officer sexual misconduct and abuses of power. A second remedy, thorough and consistent training in the complexity of sexual and intimate partner violence, also remains elusive, despite a torrent of incidents over years in which the police exhibit beliefs in gender stereotypes and rape myths. The two remedies are related, in the most basic sense that men tend to have more inaccurate beliefs about rape than women do.

It makes sense that untrained and ill-informed police officers are no less subject to popular rape myths than anyone else. However, studies have shown that police – in line with studies of other fraternal settings, like college fraternities – are less likely to believe sexual assault victims. In 2012, police in Cranberry, Pennsylvania were found liable in the harassment of a victim, saying to her, among other things, "Your tears won't save you now." Rape victims are sometimes "interviewed" in interrogation rooms. For years, people reporting sexual assault in St. Louis were urged by police to sign a "Sexual Assault Victim Waiver," which absolved the police from responsibility for investigating the crime or reporting it to the FBI.

When victims don't conform to idealized versions of what a rape victim should look and act like, untrained and inexperienced officers, like most people, are highly likely to doubt them. Studies show that surveyed police officers think up to 50 percent of rape victims are making false claims, until they have more than seven years of experience working with them, after which the estimate drops to between eight and 10 percent, closer to the two to eight percent of cases that researchers have found is accurate. Related problems of bias and rape mythologizing exist at every level of the criminal justice system, beginning with dispatchers who are often responsible for assigning a criminal code to incidents as they are reported, and ending in courtrooms, where judges have enormous leeway in sentencing, often with deplorable outcomes for victims.

Sixty-nine percent of police departments surveyed in 2012 reported that dispatchers, frequently with little or no training, are initially responsible for coding crimes. These codes are important because they are analyzed in order to understand trends and to allocate resources. Rapes are among the more frequently downgraded and miscoded crimes reported, and which hides the high incidence of rape in the United States. In 2014, for example, an Ohio 911 dispatcher was recorded harshly insisting over the phone that a 20-year-old woman reporting her rape "quit crying" and went on to tell her that the police would never find her assailant based on her description. From dispatchers, victims are passed along what is often a hostile chain of interviews, interrogations, rape kit collection, a failure of departments to investigate – and, sometimes, outright police cover-ups. Dr. Debra Patterson, an associate professor at the Wayne State University School of Social Work, studied police interactions with sexual assault survivors and found that up to half experience secondary victimization as a result of reporting the crime.

To describe the Baltimore department's practices as "inadequate" is an absurd understatement. In addition to dismissing claims, denigrating victims and joking about rape, the report found that officers had "coerced sex in exchange for immunity from arrest." The descriptions of these violations were remarkably similar to those enacted by serial rapist and former Oklahoma City police officer Daniel Holtzclaw, who was eventually convicted of 18 charges related to stalking, forcible oral sodomy, and rape. Like the officers described in the Baltimore report, Holtzclaw specifically targeted vulnerable women, black, mostly poor, some with drug addictions. In other words, people with little power who were easy to dismiss, had little cultural credibility and could be portrayed as morally bankrupt.

Like Holtzclaw, officers in Baltimore were given a pass when their behavior was brought to the attention of superiors. Hotlzclaw was allowed to stay on duty while being investigated – a period during which he continued his assaults. According to the DOJ report, in Baltimore, officers known to have perpetrated crimes were allowed to resign. In other cities officers who have engaged in sexual and intimate partner violence have not only been overlooked or been asked to leave, but have actually been promoted. In some departments, a positive drug test will get an officer fired, but a charge of battering a spouse won't. It's difficult to fathom how a culture this tolerant of such high levels of intimate and sexual violence could possibly be reasonably expected not to engage in broader brutality.

In 2010, a Baltimore Sun investigation revealed that the city had the highest number of unresolved and miscategorized rape cases in the nation, exposing their situation as one of the worst – but a decade of studies of departments across the country has told the same story, and there's no end in sight. In February of this year, for example, two Los Angeles officers were charged in multiple sexual assaults of four women in a case that was eventually buried under another involving more than a dozen officers. In what media depicted as a "sex scandal" officers apparently had "inappropriate relationships with a teenage sex worker." In June, the department – which, in 2008, was found to have more than 6,000 untested rape kits - was put under civilian control after churning through three police chief in nine days. Likewise, criminal and abusive practices were documented recently in New Orleans, where a report from the city's inspector general found that officers pursued fewer than 15 percent of rape claims in even the most basic way. A 2015 DOJ study of the Missoula, Montana police department was depressingly similar in its findings. 

"We saw time and time again where women were discounted and officers would ask them: 'Did you have an orgasm? Was this regret sex? Do you have a boyfriend?'" Jonathan Smith, a former Justice Department official who managed the Missoula report, recently told the New York Times. "Those are privileged kids. Low-income women are facing sometimes worse."

In 2014, University of Kansas School of Law professor Corey Rayburn released a detailed analysis of federal policing data, covering from 1995 and 2012. He found that in Baltimore, reported rapes showed a suspicious 80 percent decline during the period between 1995 and 2010, compared with a seven percent national reduction. Twenty-two percent of 210 cities with populations of more than 100,000 demonstrated "substantial statistical irregularities in their rape data." He estimates, conservatively, that as the result of widespread practices such as these, between 796,213 and 1,145,309 cases reported during 1995 and 2010 were never captured in the FBI's national assessments.

Yung tied these irregularities to crimes being uncoded, mis-coded, not investigated and deliberately buried by police. In line with Yung's conclusions, the DOJ found that between 53 and 58 percent of cases in Baltimore were coded "open," and left to linger, uninvestigated. "Open" largely replaced the category "unfounded," which was the code assigned to up to 30% of cases prior to the Sun's 2010 investigation. These statistics are remarkably similar to those in Philadelphia in the mid-1990s, when the sex crime division was jokingly called the "lying bitch unit."

"Any success in decreasing sexual violence," Yung wrote in a new study describing systemic policing barriers to the effective prosecution of rape, "hinges on removing the numerous police-imposed obstacles inhibiting investigation and adjudication in rape cases, beginning with substantial reform of police practices." He argued that, to date, attempts to reform police practices have failed.

The problem isn't only one of police inadequately responding to victims, but of a failure to police themselves. Officer-perpetrated sexual "misconduct" remains the second highest form of reported infractions in police departments. Coupled with outrageously high incidences of domestic abuse in policing families – it's between 2 and 4 times more likely than in the general population – these statistics tell a dismal story about how deeply grounded wider police brutality is in intimate and sexual violence.

Among the most tangible and effective reforms available to police departments, in addition to training and prioritizing responses to sexual assault crimes, is adding more women to policing ranks, particularly in leadership positions, which has been shown to improve community relations and reduce the incidence and public cost of police brutality in ways that racially diversifying men does not. Women officers do a more thorough – and apparently less biased – job of responding to both sexual violence and intimate violence reports. They are also less likely to resort to physical force or coercion.

While overall efforts to improve diversity appear to be working, gender diversity is not and hasn't in 20 years. In many communities, the percentage of minorities on police forces is 30 points lower than the populations they serve, though minority men now make up 27 percent of U.S. law enforcement, compared to only15 percent in 1987. For women, however, the percentage has remained virtually unchanged since the late 1990s, roughly 12 percent – and in some jurisdictions it has actually gone down. (Detroit has the highest, at 27 percent.) Women are only 219 police chiefs of the country’s more than 14,000 departments – one less now that after DC Chief Cathy Lanier's announced she'll resign – still encounter sexism, racism, and sexual harassment and experience higher rates of burnout than their male peers.

Notably, particularly in cities with complex demographics such as Baltimore, black women officers report receiving less respect and trust from male colleagues.

Despite decades of studies, both national and international, confirming the benefits of creating gender egalitarian spaces, there appear to be few systematic efforts – locally or nationally - to address gender imbalance. In 2012, the International Association of Police Chiefs launched a Women's Leadership Institute to provide training and skills development. The onus, however, is on women to get trained and get skilled. In January 2015, former police chief Barbara O'Connor, who has more than 30 years experience in municipal and campus environments and sits on the President's Task Force on 21st Century Policing, outlined a series of recommendations that ranged from some of the most basic forms of support for women in the workplace (such as child care and workplace policies that support parenting) to fundamental shifts in policing culture. Still, however, most large police departments fail to have clear objectives for developing holistic recruitment strategies, reducing workplace gender bias and harassment and retaining women.

For vital reasons, most headlines regarding the DOJ Baltimore report highlighted racism, while its findings regarding gender and sexual violence filtered into the media as a secondary emphasis. For the most vulnerable, and most affected members of our society – women of color – these are indivisible problems and until their material intersection is publicly prioritized, as a critical element of reforming the criminal justice system, police brutality and abuse will continue. When it comes to rape, the consequences for victims, often blamed and asked why they don't report their rapes to the police, are clear: no commitment to treating the crimes against them as important enough to demand change.