For the past two years, ever since 18-year-old Michael Brown was fatally shot by a Ferguson, Mo., police officer, America has been enmeshed in a wrenching discussion about how the police treat young black men.
But this week’s blistering report from the Justice Department on police bias in Baltimore also exposed a different, though related, concern: how the police in that majority-black city treat women, especially victims of sexual assault.
In six pages of the 163-page report documenting how Baltimore police officers have systematically violated the rights of African-Americans, the Justice Department also painted a picture of a police culture deeply dismissive of sexual assault victims and hostile toward prostitutes and transgender people. It branded the Baltimore Police Department’s response to sexual assault cases “grossly inadequate.”
Baltimore officers sometimes humiliated women who tried to report sexual assault, often failed to gather basic evidence, and disregarded some complaints filed by prostitutes. Some officers blamed victims or discouraged them from identifying their assailants, asking questions like, “Why are you messing that guy’s life up?”
And the culture seemed to extend to prosecutors, investigators found. In one email exchange, a prosecutor referred to a woman who had reported a sexual assault as a “conniving little whore.” A police officer, using a common text-message expression for laughing heartily, wrote back: “Lmao! I feel the same.”
The inclusion of gender bias issues in the report stemmed from an aggressive push by the Justice Department, under President Obama, to improve the handling of sexual assault cases on college campuses and in cities and communities around the country.
Other “pattern or practice” investigations of police departments — including in New Orleans; Puerto Rico; and Missoula, Mont. — have also identified gender bias. In Puerto Rico in 2011, while examining discrimination against people of Dominican descent, Justice Department investigators cited a police department’s failure “to adequately police sex assault and domestic violence” cases, including spousal abuse by fellow officers. In New Orleans in 2012, investigators described a deeply dysfunctional force and found that the police “systemically misclassified possible sexual assaults.”
In Missoula, where the department also investigated a campus of the University of Montana, the inquiries focused specifically on gender and also examined the actions of prosecutors. In a 20-page report issued in 2014, the Justice Department said county prosecutors so thoroughly ignored rape cases that they were placing “women in Missoula at increased risk of harm.”
But experts and advocates agree that the problem is especially complex, and perhaps more acute, in Baltimore because so many women there are poor and black.
“Baltimore is worse in the sense that Baltimore is a city that has more people of color and more poor people of color, so we are likely to see more excesses, and that is manifest in the report,” said Lisalyn R. Jacobs, an expert on race and gender bias who works closely with the Obama administration on issues including sexual assault.
The Baltimore police commissioner, Kevin Davis, who vowed Wednesday to turn his department into “a model for the rest of the nation,” did not dispute the Justice Department’s findings. He said in an interview Thursday that he was already taking steps, including putting a trusted captain in charge of a new sex offense unit and assigning a sergeant to act as an “L.G.B.T. liaison,” to address the problems.
“The challenge of interacting respectfully with victims of sexual assault is a challenge to our profession,” Commissioner Davis said, “and we are getting better at it in Baltimore, and we are paying attention to it.”
African-Americans make up 63 percent of the population in Baltimore, and the city has been in the thick of its own painful conversation about race and policing since the April 2015 death of Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old black man who sustained a fatal spinal injury in police custody. Tessa Hill-Aston, the president of the city’s branch of the N.A.A.C.P., said the Justice Department’s report this week had pushed the conversation about victims of police bias beyond black men.
“There’s a lot of women in the same communities that have been victimized just as much,” Ms. Hill-Aston said, adding of the police, “They just didn’t care, because it was a poor black woman or a poor black neighborhood.”
Civil and women’s rights advocates in Baltimore have been saying for years that the police do an inadequate job of investigating rape and sexual assault cases. In 2010, The Baltimore Sun reported that in the previous four years, the police had routinely failed to solve rape cases; in reviewing F.B.I. data, the newspaper found that the percentage of rape cases dismissed as false or baseless was higher in Baltimore than in any other city in the country.
But so little progress was made that Justice Department investigators felt compelled to raise the issue, though they did not formally cite the Baltimore police for violating women’s constitutional rights, said Vanita Gupta, the department’s top civil rights official, who supervised the report. “We were troubled by the lingering problems associated with gender-biased policing in Baltimore,” she said Thursday in an interview.
The Police Department’s lackluster investigation of rapes was of particular concern, the report said. From 2010 to 2014, the department found, rape kits, which hold forensic evidence gathered by doctors and nurses, were tested in only 15 percent of Baltimore cases involving sexual assault victims.
Officers failed to perform basic detective work, the report said.
One woman reported a rape by a taxi driver, but the department never tried to test the suspect’s DNA. Another woman reported a sexual assault by an unlicensed cabdriver, and although a detective identified a suspect, the police never tried to contact him, and the investigation faltered. Neither of these victims were named in the Justice Department report.
“We have many, many women who will never go to the police about a rape ever again because of the way they’ve been treated,” said Jacqueline Robarge, the director and founder of Power Inside, an organization that works with victims of gender-based violence, some of whom shared their stories with Justice Department investigators. Ms. Robarge said she had also recorded at least 15 interviews with women and had given them to the department.
Ms. Robarge added that she had worked with women who had been the victims of sexual misconduct by officers themselves. She recalled a 24-year-old prostitute who said a police officer had ordered her into his car and coerced her to have sex.
The woman, fearing retaliation, did not talk to investigators, Ms. Robarge said. But Justice Department investigators cited similar instances in their report.
“We heard complaints from the community that some officers target members of a vulnerable population — people involved in the sex trade — to coerce sexual favors from them in exchange for avoiding arrest, or for cash or narcotics,” the investigators wrote.
The report also described deep insensitivity on the part of some Baltimore officers toward transgender people, which reflected “underlying unlawful gender bias.” One transgender woman, for instance, said that an officer who was ordered to search her had protested in disgust, complaining to a colleague, “I am not searching that.” Then the officer turned to the woman and declared: “I don’t know if you’re a boy or a girl. And I really don’t care. I am not searching you.”
Commissioner Davis said he was committed to improving the treatment of sexual assault victims, and spoke Thursday of a “sea change” in policing culture.
In an interview, Capt. Steven Hohman, the commander of the department’s Special Investigations Section, which contains the Sex Offense Unit, declined to respond to individual examples in the report. “I believe that much of the work was being done,” Captain Hohman said. “We just weren’t very good at documenting.”
Experts agree that these problems are not unique to Baltimore. In December 2015, Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch, concerned by the findings of the inquiries in New Orleans, Puerto Rico and Missoula, issuedguidance to law enforcement agencies on how to prevent gender bias.
“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?’” said Jonathan Smith, a former Justice Department official who supervised those inquiries, referring to the Missoula investigation. He added: “Those are privileged kids. Low-income women are facing sometimes worse.”
In each of those instances, the department demanded improvements as part of a consent decree, in which police practices are overhauled under the supervision of a federal judge. That will now be the case in Baltimore, Ms. Gupta said.