Several Montgomery County state delegates say they’re concerned about what they say is a lack of transparency from county police regarding reported rape cases classified as “unfounded” in the wake of an investigative report by BuzzFeed News.
On Thursday, the county’s House delegation sent a letter to Montgomery County police Chief Tom Manger and State’s Attorney John McCarthy requesting a meeting. County police officials disputed the accuracy of statistics in the BuzzFeed report and said they plan to meet with some delegates Oct. 3.
The BuzzFeed article focused on the Baltimore County Police department and its classification of 34 percent of rape cases as unfounded—some of which were determined by the website to have limited investigations, including one in which police did not interview the alleged assailant and closed the case without notifying the woman who had reported it.
The Sept. 8 article also stated the Montgomery County police department had classified 24 percent of reported rape cases as unfounded from 2009 to 2014—making it one of 11 departments examined by BuzzFeed that had high rates of unfounded rape cases and had reported more than 250 rapes to the FBI during that period. The national average for classification as unfounded by police departments during that time was 7 percent, according to the website’s report.
BuzzFeed’s reporters were not able to access the county police department’s unfounded rape case files because the department denied the website’s public information request.
Del. David Moon (D-Silver Spring), who serves on the House Judiciary Committee, said Wednesday he was concerned that county police refused to provide case files about unfounded rapes to BuzzFeed, when Baltimore County provided the files after redacting them. Both agencies are governed by the same state public information laws.
“Reporters were able to gain access to case files themselves, but that doesn’t appear to be the case in Montgomery County,” Moon said. “We want to obtain information about these cases and how Montgomery County police handled them so we can see if there’s anything to be concerned about. I do understand the need for privacy, but redaction seems like a way to tell the public about possible public safety dangers.”
County police said in a statement sent to Bethesda Beat Thursday that rape cases are classified as unfounded if the allegations are found to be baseless, false or if they don’t meet the elements of a crime in the state.
The county police department’s disclosure policy regarding rape investigations was previously questioned in 2004 when The Gazette published a story noting that police refused to publicly disclose information about rape cases unless there was a danger to the community. At the time, a police spokeswoman said police only issue news releases about “stranger rapes.”
A review of press releases about reported rapes that police have issued in the past two years shows that policy appears to remain in effect. In 2015, for example, police issued three press releases about reported rapes or attempted rapes, but the department’s crime statistics note 259 rapes and 19 attempted rapes were reported that year. The number of reported rapes rose more than 100 percent in the county from 2014 to 2015, but police attributed that significant rise to a change in the definition of rape by the FBI that the county started using in 2015.
When asked about the policy about releasing information about rape cases to the public, police Capt. Paul Starks said Friday the publicly released statistics “don’t differentiate between domestic, stranger-based or acquaintance-based" reported rapes.
"So much of what we do is public information. We will release it when asked,” he said. “What we’ve found is normally the public and media outlets don’t cover rapes that are committed by spouses, ex-spouses, [or] acquaintances because it doesn’t have a real effect on the general public as far as safety or quality of life in the neighborhood."
Lisae Jordan, executive director of the Maryland Coalition Against Sexual Assault, described the department’s policy as “deeply disturbing.” She said just because the media may not choose to cover a rape doesn’t mean the county shouldn’t publicize that it happened.
“It perpetuates the myth that rape is conducted by strangers and it fails to give the public the information they need to face the issue,” Jordan said. “Rape is mostly not committed by strangers, it’s committed by people known to the survivor. Law enforcement should be providing enough information that the public has awareness about what’s going on, while at the same time protecting the survivor’s identity.”
In emails obtained by Bethesda Beat, state delegates debated how to proceed with finding out more information about the cases that were classified as unfounded, with some delegates saying a private meeting with Manger and McCarthy should take place before a public discussion.
The delegation’s letter sent Thursday notes Baltimore County police plan to conduct a review of all unfounded rape cases and suggests that Montgomery County police consider doing the same.
“Though we appreciate that the statistics in the BuzzFeed article may be without context, we want to be sure that any viable cases can be addressed and survivors can be notified,” the letter says. It also requests more information about how police disclose and redact records and case files.
BuzzFeed notes it focused on Baltimore County police investigations because the department provided case files for unfounded reported rapes in the county. The BuzzFeed article linked to the Montgomery County police letter denying the records request in its story. In the letter, a police records custodian writes that investigative records are made available only to “a person of interest” in the cases.
“The Special Victims Investigations Division’s investigatory file contains personal and private information about the victims the disclosure of which, to a member of the general public, would likely cause distress, embarrassment, and perhaps humiliation, to the victims,” Deborah Whims, the custodian of records, wrote in the letter.
Del. Will Smith (D-Silver Spring), also a member of the Judiciary Committee, said the 24 percent figure raised questions. He said meeting with local police and prosecutors is a “great first step,” but he was also concerned that the county didn’t provide BuzzFeed with the case files.
In the emails between delegates, Del. Kathleen Dumais (D-Germantown), who serves as the vice chairman of the Judiciary Committee, recommended meeting with the chief and state’s attorney before taking any positions on the subject.
Dumais said in a phone interview with Bethesda Beat Wednesday that reported rape cases often involve a range of emotions and changing circumstances.
“I don’t know how rape investigations are handled in Montgomery County and before I go complaining about them, I want to understand the current policies,” Dumais said. “There’s probably room for improvement, but these issues are really complex.”
Dumais also included on the email chain an email from Manger saying that he believes the BuzzFeed article did a poor job in explaining the “complex issues involved” and left readers with the impression that rape “victims were not being treated with sensitivity or dignity.”
“Nothing could be further from the truth,” Manger wrote. He also encouraged the elected officials to invite prosecutors from the Montgomery County State’s Attorney’s Office to participate in the discussion.
Ramon Korionoff, a spokesman for the Montgomery County State’s Attorney’s Office, said:
“There are a myriad reasons as to why a case is deemed ‘unfounded’ by the police, which may include a request from the victim not to pursue the case or a lack of evidence. We work with police to build strong-evidence based cases and it is difficult without individually reviewing the actual cases that are included in the 24 [percent figure] to know why a particular complaint did not result in rape charges.”
Montgomery County police also disputed the accuracy of the BuzzFeed statistic in its statement.
“The Department believes that, on its face, the BuzzFeed story was incomplete and inaccurate on some of its reporting. We fully investigate every rape reported to the Montgomery County Police, it should be noted that an ‘unfounded’ classification means different things to different police departments,” the statement says.
Del. Shane Robinson (D-Montgomery Village), chairman of the Montgomery County House Delegation, said Wednesday state representatives are not overlooking legal issues police and prosecutors encounter when handling rape cases and plan to make those issues a priority in November when discussing proposed legislation for the 2017 General Assembly session.
One legal issue identified in the BuzzFeed article is that police agencies and prosecutors are hamstrung by a Maryland statute that requires evidence that rape victims forcefully resisted their attackers in order to prove a rape occurred.
Dumais said she plans this year to introduce a version of her 2005 bill that would remove the force requirement.
Jordan said Maryland is “behind the times” in removing this requirement.
“The reality is law enforcement, prosecutors and juries are interpreting the law in a different way,” Jordan said. There should be no legal requirement that a rape victim forcibly refuse an attack, she said.
She also said police agencies should ask a third party to periodically audit reported rape cases as a way to ensure the privacy of victims while also not relying on police agencies to investigate themselves. She referred to a Philadelphia investigation into how its police department handled rape cases. The city brought in an independent investigator to audit the cases and also enabled victims’ advocates to work with police on ongoing investigations to ensure cases are handled appropriately. The Philadelphia system has since been hailed as a model for how to properly handle rape investigations and review them.
Jordan said she has heard complaints from victims in the past about how Montgomery County police officers have handled rape investigations.
“Law enforcement generally needs to acknowledge there’s been problems in these cases and institute the external review process,” Jordan said.
Alex Campbell, one of the two reporters who worked on the BuzzFeed story, told Bethesda Beat he was surprised the county didn’t provide the case files. He also said the website requested similar files from Prince George’s County police, which agreed to provide them for $10 per case file. Campbell said he and the other reporter instead chose to focus on Baltimore County and didn’t pursue obtaining the Prince George’s files.
The BuzzFeed article has led the Baltimore County police department to announce earlier this month it would review every rape case deemed unfounded in the past three years.
Campbell said Thursday that BuzzFeed is considering filing a court appeal to try to obtain the case files from Montgomery County police.
Dumais said it’s important to also note when discussing police conduct concerning rape investigations that county police have long maintained a good reputation.
“One of the things we have to keep in mind is that we have one of the best trained, most professional law enforcement departments in the state, if not the country,” she said. “That’s why I think it’s important that we have a conversation about the way we handle things before we decide if the chief, his leadership team or officers are not handling investigations correctly.”