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UMBC student helps bring justice to sexual assault survivors in Baltimore County

Over the past two years, there have been increasing concerns over Baltimore County law enforcement’s use of sexual assault confidential release authorizations, which prompt survivors of sexual assault to waive their rights to an investigation. Here is how one UMBC student is making waves in the community to solve this problem.

Many UMBC students remember the controversy surrounding sexual assault claims on campus last spring. Recently, more light has been shed on this problem when Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski, Jr. called out Baltimore County law enforcement for its excessive use of sexual assault confidential release authorizations.

This is a practice in which law enforcement prompts sexual assault victims to waive their rights to an investigation, usually by stressing the bureaucracy, paperwork and general nuisance victims might incur by going through with an investigation. To a shaken survivor of sexual assault, being prompted to waive investigation rights by a law enforcement officer may seem like the best option.

Alarmed by the excessive use of this practice, Olszewski asked the Baltimore County police department to discontinue the use of sexual assault confidential release authorizations in February, citing a report that states members of the police department engaged in this practice over 150 times in the last two years alone. Olszewski then created a skilled task force to further investigate the situation, including UMBC student and president of We Believe You, Nadia BenAissa, gender and women’s studies, ’20.

After a close friend was a victim of sexual assault and BenAissa was the key witness, the two realized the lack of available resources for survivors of sexual assault on campus and became two of the founding members of We Believe You. Now the president, BenAissa calls her organization the “survivor advocate” of campus as an organization that will support and defend victims of sexual assault. She states that through her presidency of We Believe You, she has “met with many victims who have gone through the police,” adding, “There’s a definite issue with how information is passed from our police to Baltimore County police and how the Baltimore County police choose to handle that information.”

The task force is designed to investigate the current law enforcement practices used regarding sexual assault reports. It is projected to convene over the next six months to examine current investigation policies and review training for law enforcement officials involved in the response to sexual assault allegations. The task force will also ensure proper tracking is in place for these cases, assess available resources for investigations, and research and recommend new practices. BenAissa hopes that by the end of the six months, the task force will have “suggested best practices and research-based solutions to how [law enforcement] handles sexual assault.”

BenAissa serves as the student voice on the task force, but she is clear that she is representing the voices of college students in Baltimore County as a whole. She explains, “It made sense for a UMBC student to be involved … to talk about student needs that Baltimore County police are meeting and current attitudes UMBC students have on police.”

Other members of the task force include a program manager with the International Association of Chiefs of Police, the Commander for the Baltimore City Police Department’s Special Victims Unit, a program manager at GBMC for the sexual assault forensic exam, and the CEO of TurnAround, Baltimore County’s rape crisis center. BenAissa says the members were chosen to “get all the key players in Baltimore County that work on this issue involved,” which will hopefully ensure citizens are well-represented.

BenAissa is hopeful that, by the end of the six months, progress can be tracked by an increase in reported cases of sexual assault, proving “faith can be restored in police and their ability to actually go after people who commit these crimes.” Her ambition and dedication as a student advocate for survivors of sexual assault aims to provide hope that this issue will begin to see more coverage. If all goes according to plan, her work in the task force will provide “stepping stones for people to improve on because there’s always room for growth and always work to be done.”