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Council-mandated sexual assault process review comes before Public Safety Commission

Wednesday, March 6, 2019 by Jessi Devenyns

After City Council ordered an independent review of the Austin Police Department’s handling of sexual assault cases, the city manager’s office went straight to work. Staffers requested proposals from non-governmental entities with expertise in the prosecution of the crime to review at least 200 APD cases (or 50 percent of cases) and determine the degree to which the department is adhering to state and federal law in its investigating and reporting. The end goal is to improve the city’s processes for victims of sexual assault.

At the March 4 meeting of the Public Safety Commission, Joe Silva, an executive assistant with the city manager’s office, came to request input from the commission on what the city should require from investigators during the course of the review.

While the commissioners were happy to offer their suggestions, Commissioner Rebecca Bernhardt wondered if this preliminary step would be the extent of the commission’s participation. She noted that it would be more constructive if members of the commission participated in the evaluation and review of vendor applications. Chair Rebecca Webber agreed, adding that the city manager’s office should also contact the District Attorney’s Office for their input.

Erin D’Vincent from the city’s Purchasing Office explained that having commissions weigh in on the vendor proposal process is “typically not done.” She said that the two city offices were attending the commission meeting in order to determine if there was anything the commission wanted to be included in addition to what was specifically mentioned in the resolution.

“The two things that struck me as needing to be clarified is the participation,” said Commissioner Rebecca Gonzales. For her, participation meant two things: having the investigator engage all the important communities involved in the reporting of a sexual assault, and ensuring that victims are willing to participate in the review process of Austin’s public safety department. “I’m very concerned that it will take an unreasonable effort to get 200 survivors (to offer their testimony) who have already not had the best experience with our public safety,” she said.

Bernhardt noted that she would like to clarify what “adult” means in the context of investigating a sexual assault. “My assumption had always been that we were talking about victims over the age of 12,” she explained. According to her, when it comes to investigating crimes of sexual assault, victims are generally classified as adults if they are over the age of 12. However, Bernhardt pointed out that as the age limit is not specified in the resolution, investigators could potentially only look at cases for those over the age of 18, which would change the data set dramatically.

City staff took the commissioners’ feedback and will be going back to prepare the scope of work for the new investigator. D’Vincent said the Purchasing Office has reached out to 12 potential vendors and 11 have responded. She said once they choose a vendor, she expects to begin the work in June and report the findings to Council in August.

Photo by Airman st Class Kate Thornton-Maurer.

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