Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced in April that he had ordered a sweeping review of reform agreements reached with dozens of police departments, writing in a memo at the time that “local control and local accountability” made for effective policing and it was “not the responsibility of the federal government to manage non-federal law enforcement agencies.”
The message was clear enough: The Department of Justice would be pulling back from the the kinds of federal oversight of police departments conducted by the Obama administration to leave cops to look after themselves.
In places like Baltimore—where the mayor and police commissioner joined local reform advocates in sharply criticizing the Sessions memo—leaving the police to monitor the police has historically resulted in a pattern of excessive force and unconstitutional stops, searches, and arrests that overwhelmingly targeted black residents. A damning report released by the DOJ in 2016 following a yearlong investigation concluded that the Baltimore Police Department “intrudes disproportionately upon the lives of African Americans at every stage of its enforcement activities.” In recent years, the same systemic biases and civil rights abuses were documented in federal reports on departments from New Orleans to Ferguson and Chicago.
Another familiar pattern: During the course of these wide-ranging investigations it was often revealed that officers were grossly mishandling sexual assault investigations and their treatment of sexual assault victims.
In the same report outlining Baltimore’s pattern of racist stops and searches, the DOJ found that police “persistently neglect[ed]” to test rape kits or gather other forensic evidence. They made “minimal to no effort to locate, identify, interrogate, or investigate suspects” even in cases “where the suspects had been identified or were easily identifiable on the basis of the victim’s testimony.” They intimidated victims, with one officer asking a woman reporting a sexual assault: “Why are you messing that guy’s life up?”
In other words, they weren’t doing their jobs.
The self-regulation of the sort Sessions claims makes for better policing is precisely the vacuum that allowed officers to toss out rape kits and intimidate victims into silence in departments across the country. No one was watching the cops watch themselves.
“It’s much too facile to say that you can’t address police misconduct without undermining efforts to fight crime,” Christy Lopez, a former deputy chief in the Special Litigation Section of the Civil Rights Division at the DOJ during the Obama administration, tells me. “Especially in this context, you’re talking about one in the same.”
Rape is common and lying about it is rare. Police officers routinely get this backwards.
A majority of rapes go unreported, but many of the victims who do come forward “are being treated in much the same way as perpetrators,” according to Annelise Mennicke, an assistant professor at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte School of Social work. “We have this idea that a majority of rape claims are not true or unfounded. So instead of being treated like other victims of crime, they’re questioned about what they were doing, how they were doing it, where they were, and decisions they made.”
This was the case in multiple police departments investigated by the DOJ during the Obama administration. In New Orleans, the DOJ found a police force that “systematically misclassified large numbers of possible sexual assaults, resulting in a sweeping failure to properly investigate many potential cases of rape, attempted rape, and other sex crimes.” A woman who reported her rape to the department was pressed by a cop on why she had walked home “alone in the cold on a dark street at that time in the morning.”
In Missoula, Montana—the rare case where the departments’ gender bias and mishandling of rape investigations were the things that instigated federal oversight in the first place—a woman who reported a gang rape was told it was “probably just a drunken night and a mistake.”
Around 2 to 8 percent of reported rapes are provably false, but research going back decades reveals a pattern of suspicion when it comes to officer perceptions of rape and rape victims. In a study Mennicke co-authored in 2014, she found that 80 percent of the officers she surveyed put the number of false rape reports much higher than that 2 to 8 percent.
The study asked a simple question: “From your experiences as a criminal justice officer, what percentage of rape claims are unfounded?” About 15 percent of officers were slightly off—putting the rate of false rape claims between 9 and 19 percent, but nearly a third said that between 20 and 49 percent of rape allegations were false or unfounded. Staggeringly, a full 43 percent of officers surveyed said unfounded rape reports accounted for 50 to 70 percent of claims. Just as shocking, one in ten cops surveyed said unfounded rape claims were likely higher than 80 percent of reports.
“The false claims rate was really astronomical, but that in conjunction with the fact that a number of officers couldn’t accurately define rape” was equally alarming, Mennicke says. “They are saying that these cases are unfoundable, but they cannot even define what they are saying is unfoundable.”
When a police force carries this kind of bias, there is no way to self-monitor its handling of rape cases. They don’t think it’s misconduct to toss out cases or disbelieve victims, they think it’s good policing.
“And the bigger implication is that people know it’s a thing,” Mennicke says of community perceptions of their police departments. “And then they don’t report.”
An analysis of FBI statistics published last year by BuzzFeed News found a number of police departments across the country had dismissed a significant percentage of rape cases as unfounded—which the FBI defines as “false or baseless.” A department in Oxnard, California dismissed a full 54 percent of its rape cases. In Scotsdale, Arizona, that number was 47 percent.
Between the number of unreported assaults, the minuscule percentage of assaults that can be proven false after an investigation, and the high percentage of rape cases dismissed without carrying out such investigations, it’s clear that there is a staggering gulf between the sexual violence happening in our communities and the seriousness with which police departments take it.
In Baltimore County, where the unfounded rate was 34 percent, Buzzfeed News spoke to one of the victims whose case had been tossed out in 2014.
During her interview with the officer, the victim shared her account of what had happened: she fell asleep in her car after a night of drinking, and woke up to her alleged perpetrator inviting her to sober up at his house. Once there, she woke up again to find him penetrating her vagina with his penis. She gave the officer his full name and phone number, and the report included texts the alleged perpetrator sent the following day asking if she had ever been assaulted before.
The officer filed his report and it was labeled “closed” within hours. The perpetrator was never contacted and the victim was never interviewed again.
Four years earlier, the same perpetrator had been charged in another jurisdiction with first-degree rape. The case never went to trial. A year after Baltimore police dropped the case, officers would receive a call from another woman alleging she had been raped by the same man.
It’s a blunt pattern of violence and police neglect that directly contradicts Sessions’s claim that oversight hinders effective policing. And retreating from oversight isn’t just a barrier to identifying future misconduct, it could also halt current efforts to enforce the agreements already in place. Baltimore, for its part, resisted Sessions’ memo and went ahead with its consent decree. The problem was too big for local oversight. “They hold our feet to the fire,” Police Commissioner Kevin Davis told The Baltimore Sun last month.
The alternative option—the one Sessions’s Department of Justice seems to prefer—is knowing there’s a problem and doing nothing to stop it. “These things do tend to be very entrenched,” Lopez says. “They took decades to develop and they’re not going to be corrected overnight.”