Com­fort­ing vic­tims of sex­ual as­sault

Bal­ti­more po­lice re­design in­ter­view space to make a less stress­ful am­bi­ence

Baltimore Sun - - NEWS - By Kevin Rec­tor krec­tor@balt­sun.com twit­ter.com/rec­tor­sun

Vic­tims of al­leged sex­ual as­saults who agreed to be in­ter­viewed at Bal­ti­more po­lice head­quar­ters used to sit in a chair made of metal and plas­tic, across a plain ta­ble from a de­tec­tive, in a stark-white room re­sem­bling those used for crim­i­nal in­ter­ro­ga­tions.

Now, they may choose their own seat — a rock­ing chair, per­haps, or one made from plush fab­ric — in a room de­signed with the sci­ence of trauma, and how the brain and body best han­dle it, in mind.

Neu­tral wall paint, do­nated art, soft light­ing and seat­ing-in-the-round all were cho­sen to send the sur­vivors a sim­ple mes­sage, Po­lice Com­mis­sioner Kevin Davis said Wednes­day.

“This space tells them, ‘We be­lieve you, you’re safe, and we’re here to help you.’ ”

A wait­ing room for sur­vivors and their fam­ily mem­bers was also re­done, with books and blocks for chil­dren to play with, shawls for sur­vivors to keep and a large piece of art made of var­i­ous fab­rics — con­sid­ered a sen­sory com­fort.

Lori Lick­stein, co­or­di­na­tor of the Sex­ual As­sault Re­cov­ery Team in the Mayor’s Of­fice of Crim­i­nal Jus­tice, said she first con­cep­tu­al­ized the trans­for­ma­tion of the rooms a year ago.

“These rooms were de­signed to pro­vide psy­cho­log­i­cal and phys­i­cal safety,” she said. “These rooms are meant to not only help in giv­ing con­trol back to the vic­tim, from top to bot­tom with ground­ing mindfulness. They are also to help the of­fi­cers pre­vent vi­car­i­ous trauma.”

Mayor Stephanie Rawl­ings-Blake said the rooms will help sur­vivors feel more com­fort­able shar­ing in­for­ma­tion while strength­en­ing po­lice in­ves­ti­ga­tions — im­por­tant in a city where few sex­ual as­saults and rapes are solved, and po­lice have been crit­i­cized for how they han­dle such cases.

“It’s com­mon sense that bet­ter in­ves­ti­ga­tions will lead to higher clear­ance rates,” Rawl­ings-Blake said. “You get bet­ter in­ves­ti­ga­tions when you get ac­cess to the best in­for­ma­tion, and the most de­tailed and ac­cu­rate in­for­ma­tion.”

Capt. Steve Hohman is com­man­der of the de­part­ment’s Spe­cial In­ves­ti­ga­tions Sec­tion, which in­ves­ti­gates sex­ual as­saults.

“It not only puts the sur­vivor in a mind frame, it puts the de­tec­tive and the in­ves­ti­ga­tor in a mind frame that is go­ing to help fa­cil­i­tate that vic­tim-cen­tered, trauma-in­formed re­sponse and in­ves­ti­ga­tion,” he said.

The new rooms, funded with do­na­tions from the non­profit Mis­sion14 and mem­bers of the com­mu­nity, are the lat­est change in how the de­part­ment ap­proaches sex­ual as­sault cases since the re­lease last month of a scathing re­port by the U.S. De­part­ment of Jus­tice which slammed the de­part­ment for what it said was years of sloppy, care­less re­sponses to re­ports of sex­ual as­sault.

The Bal­ti­more Sun re­ported in 2010 that city po­lice were dis­card­ing rape com­plaints at the high­est rate in the na­tion and five times the na­tional av­er­age.

Of­fi­cials cre­ated the Sex­ual As­sault Re­cov­ery Team and be­gan in­tro­duc­ing re­forms.

Six years later, the Jus­tice De­part­ment found the de­part­ment’s han­dling of sex­ual as­sault cases re­mained deeply flawed. Jus­tice in­ves­ti­ga­tors, who looked at the years from 2010 to 2015, said Bal­ti­more po­lice “per­sis­tently ne­glect” to test rape kits or gather foren­sic ev­i­dence, and of­ten dis­re­garded claims brought by sex work­ers, among other prob­lems.

Po­lice say they have taken sev­eral steps to ad­dress the fail­ings of years past. Foren­sic in­ves­ti­ga­tors can now put in­for­ma­tion di­rectly into de­tec­tives’ case files, and su­per­vi­sors have more over­sight of de­tec­tives’ case loads. Of­fi­cers re­spond­ing to re­ports of sex­ual as­sault in the city may no longer “code out” such re­ports, or find them un­founded in the field. Now ev­ery such call must lead to a re­port.

Davis men­tioned the Jus­tice De­part­ment’s find­ings on Wednes­day. He said the new wait­ing and in­ter­view rooms are “one ex­am­ple — a tan­gi­ble ex­am­ple — of some­thing the Bal­ti­more Po­lice De­part­ment and the city is do­ing. We’re not stand­ing still.”

Video record­ing equip­ment must be in­stalled in the new in­ter­view room be­fore it can be used. Of­fi­cials said that will oc­cur soon.

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