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Tuesday, December 19, 2017 by Jack Craver

Advocates urge more assistance for sexual assault victims

A backlog of evidence going back to the 1990s is not the only major challenge the Austin Police Department has faced in prosecuting sex crimes and helping survivors of sexual assault heal. Advocates for survivors have also said the sex crimes unit is understaffed, with too few cops to investigate sexual assaults and too few counselors to provide survivors critical services.

At a meeting of the Public Safety Commission on Dec. 4, Ana DeFrates, a women’s rights activist and member of the city Commission for Women, said that the ongoing national reckoning over sexual predation offered an opportunity for the city to invest in needed upgrades to existing systems for investigating sexual assault and assisting victims.

“Given the national conversation happening, there are a lot of opportunities to shore up the infrastructure in our police department,” she said.

Currently, there are only three victim services counselors who deal specifically with sexual assault cases in a city where at least 30 sex crimes are reported per month, said DeFrates.

“Law enforcement relies so heavily on these individuals to do work that (police) are not trained to do or equipped to do in some cases,” she said.

The Commission for Women, she said, recommends adding five new victim services employees, both to assist those recently victimized as well as those whose cases may have been part of the sexual assault kit backlog for years.

“All the more reason to invest in those positions to ensure that we’re not just moving through the evidence, we’re actually closing the loop to make certain that (victims) have the right resources to see this through,” she said.

For the minority of victims who do report the crime to the police, many stop cooperating when faced with the prospect of a lengthy, emotionally draining investigation and prosecution. Making sure that victims feel supported throughout the process is key to their continued cooperation, said DeFrates.

“It’s not one point in time. There are multiple interactions with various systems that survivors will have,” she said. “We believe strongly that by shoring up victim services, we’ll make some real improvements to those survivors’ lives.”

There has already been some significant progress, said APD Assistant Chief Joe Chacon. In May, the department added four detectives to its sex crimes unit, bringing the total to 17, “not only to address the crimes right now, but also with anticipation of the cases that will be coming back from the backlog,” he said.

Police have also been collaborating with downtown bars to try to prevent assaults. One tactic is establishing a code word that patrons who feel they are in danger can say to a bar employee, who can then “get them a ride or get them out of that situation,” said Chacon, who added that APD is promoting the initiative on flyers (in English and Spanish) throughout downtown.

Chacon also argued that a recent increase in reported sexual assaults is actually a sign of progress. He doesn’t believe there are more attacks occurring, but rather that a greater percentage of victims are coming to the police in the wake of increased awareness and sympathy for survivors.

The fact that so many victims don’t report sexual assaults makes it hard to get even a rough idea of how widespread it is. The National Crime Victimization Survey in 2015 estimated that 32 percent of sexual assault victims report the incidents to the police.

As much as possible, said Chacon, APD is trying to create a welcoming environment where victims feel comfortable and confident that their stories will be taken seriously.

“The sex crimes unit credo is, ‘We start by believing,’” he said.

Photo: Ana DeFrates testifies at the Public Safety Commission, courtesy of ATXN.

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Key Players & Topics In This Article

Austin Police Department: the law enforcement entity for the City of Austin.

Public Safety Commission: The Public Safety Commission is a City Council advisory body charged with oversight of budgetary and policy matters concerning public safety These include matters related to the Austin Police Department, the Austin Fire Department, and the Austin/Travis County Emergency Medical Services Department."

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