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City of Austin orders outside review of police handling of sexual assault cases

Friday, February 1, 2019 by Audrey McGlinchy, KUT

The city has ordered an independent review of the Austin Police Department’s handling of sexual assault cases, asking investigators to track incidents from when they’re first reported to police to when they’re closed or handed off to the district attorney’s office for prosecution.

“The goal of the evaluation is to understand the deeper why behind the problems we are seeing with reported sexual assault cases in Austin,” said Council Member Alison Alter, who announced last week that she and some of her colleagues would call for an audit.

“We can be a model for countless other communities in how we address sexual assault.”

Council has directed city management to hire a third-party investigator who will examine sexual assaults reported to police over the past seven years, considering at least 200 cases or 50 percent of the cases each year – whichever number is greater. Alter’s office estimates the review could cost anywhere from $200,000 to $1 million.

Earlier this month, Police Chief Brian Manley also called for an outside review of how police investigate sexual assaults after state auditors found that detectives had wrongly cleared without arrest nearly a third of rape cases over a three-month period in 2017. But with Council’s separate call for a review, there will only be one.

Advocates for sexual assault survivors have said APD’s pattern of misclassifying rape cases is part of a larger systemic issue with the department’s methods; Manley has refuted this idea.

Survivors and advocates gathered at City Hall Thursday ahead of Council members’ vote. They wore yellow scarves, necklaces and bandanas, which one advocate called a symbol of hope, as in a sunrise.

“I know survivors that have never been contacted by their detectives, who never got the results from their rape kits. I know survivors who were told their tortures sounded consensual,” said Marina Conner, who is a plaintiff in a lawsuit alleging that local law enforcement mishandled sexual assault cases because of gender bias.

“Passing this resolution will give survivors across Austin hope that the people who are supposed to protect us want to do better and want to do the right thing.”

While Council members did not set a deadline for the review, they asked City Manager Spencer Cronk to return within six months with an update on progress.

Last year, journalists with ProPublica, Newsy and the Center for Investigative Reporting revealed that local police departments were overusing what’s called “exceptional clearance” to close rape cases; in these cases, police have identified a suspect but are unable to go through with an arrest because of reasons outside their control.

The review Council members ordered on Thursday applies only to the police department since Council does not have jurisdiction over the Travis County District Attorney’s Office, which handles the prosecution of sexual assault cases. On Tuesday, Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt and former state Sen. Wendy Davis announced they would be creating a community group to advocate for survivors of sexual assault. A similar group has existed since 1992.

This story was produced as part of the Austin Monitor’s reporting partnership with KUT. Photo by Gabriel C. Pérez/KUT.

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