Monday, November 14, 2022

Independent Review Makes Recommendations to Improve Police Handling of Sexual Assaults


Austin Police Department has ‘taken meaningful steps toward improvement’, report says 

The final report into Austin Police Department’s handling of sexual assaults, published today, has identified multiple recommendations to further improve investigations and processes. 

The 182-page report, Austin Police Department (APD) Review: Reported Sexual Assault Comprehensive Evaluation, follows a comprehensive evaluation conducted by the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF), in conjunction with the Women’s Law Project and the Wellesley Centers for Women, following a Council resolution in January 2019. 

The consulting team sought to understand how APD approaches, processes, and closes sexual assault cases, focusing on the victim experience. PERF performed a quantitative analysis of a nine-year sample of sexual assault cases reported between 2012 and 2020, made an expert assessment of APD written policies, procedures, and training regarding sexual assault cases, and performed a qualitative analysis of interviews with key stakeholders. 

“While APD’s Sex Crimes Unit has experienced numerous challenges in the last decade, APD has learned lessons and taken meaningful steps toward improvement, as the authors of this report recognize,” said Assistant City Manager Rey Arellano. “We know there is still work to do, and APD will carefully review these new recommendations in an effort to continue making progress to ensure the needs of survivors are at the heart of our law enforcement response.” 

The PERF review was commissioned by the Austin City Manager’s Office after concerns were raised in 2018 about the way some sexual assault cases were incorrectly classified as ‘exceptionally cleared’ when no arrests were made. Today’s assessment finds that significant improvements have been made in the way APD classifies cases since the issue was brought to light. 

The report states: “Almost all the cases incorrectly classified as unfounded or cleared by exception occurred from 2012–2018. In 2019, there was only one case reviewed that was incorrectly classified as unfounded, and no cases reviewed were incorrectly cleared by exception. The project team did not find any 2020 cases incorrectly cleared by exception or incorrectly determined to be unfounded.” 

While noting that APD still needs to improve “several key aspects” of its response to sexual assault reports, today’s review states: “Overall, the project team found that APD made substantial progress in several areas during the review period, including a clear shift toward the prompt testing of sexual assault kits and the proper use of unfounded and exceptional clearance designations.” 

It adds: “Throughout this project, APD has demonstrated transparency and a willingness to get to the heart of the issues at hand and has already taken meaningful steps toward improvement.” 

“I’m happy many of these recommendations are already implemented, and I look forward to working on the others,” said Austin Police Chief Joseph Chacon. “This will ultimately be beneficial to our community and most importantly to survivors of sexual assault.” 

Prior to the publication of today’s report, significant progress had already been made on implementing PERF’s preliminary recommendations, which were published in June 2021. APD immediately made several positive revisions to their policy and procedures to improve outcomes for sexual assault survivors. These changes include an update to policy, more training, new technology and equipment, quicker outreach to survivors for scheduling interviews, and more frequent on scene responses by detectives.  

APD also renewed its cooperative working agreements with the Austin/Travis County Sexual Assault Response and Resource Team (SARRT), and, under new leadership, is attending the SARRT meetings, bringing new ideas, sharing information, and receiving suggestions in a positive way.  

Today’s report outlines further recommendations covering the following areas: 

  • Priority designation for sex crime-related calls 
  • Response on the scene of sexual assaults 
  • Survivor interviews and information updates 
  • Collection and preservation of information 
  • Partnership with the Travis County District Attorney’s Office 
  • Training for officers and detectives 
  • Resources and workload of members of APD’s Sex Crimes Unit 
  • Restoring community trust. 

The report suggests APD form a working group to oversee the implementation of recommendations over the coming months.

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