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Council to consider budget amendment for sexual assault investigations

Monday, August 15, 2022 by Emma Freer

The city’s Fiscal Year 2022-23 budget could include more than $850,000 in additional funding for sexual assault investigations, building on a yearslong effort to reform how the Austin Police Department investigates and processes such cases. 

Mayor Pro Tem Alison Alter proposed a budget amendment Friday that would allocate ongoing and one-time funds to implement recommendations from a recent third-party review of APD’s handling of sexual assault cases. City Council members Mackenzie Kelly, Paige Ellis and Kathie Tovo co-sponsored the proposal. 

Council is scheduled to adopt the 2022-23 budget this Wednesday, Aug. 17.

The Police Executive Research Forum, or PERF, along with the Women’s Law Project and the Wellesley Centers for Women, conducted the review, which assessed 1,430 sexual assault cases from 2012 to 2020; APD’s policies, procedures and training regarding the cases; and interviews with stakeholders. The final report is expected by Aug. 30, but PERF released some recommendations earlier this month so Council could consider them during the budget process.

If passed, Alter’s budget amendment would cover most of PERF’s preliminary recommendations, including: 

  • A yearly case review of sexual assault cases, similar to that conducted by PERF;
  • Hiring a dedicated crime analyst as part of APD’s Sex Crimes Unit to identify patterns and link cases;
  • Overtime for APD detectives to replace patrol officers while they complete additional training related to sex crimes; 
  • 14 new police vehicles for Sex Crimes Unit and Victim Services Division officers;
  • 20 body-worn camera tripods, which will improve the quality of victim and witness interviews shown in court; and
  • The formation of a work group to oversee the implementation of PERF’s recommendations.

The amendment also would fund three jobs at the SAFE Alliance, a local nonprofit that supports survivors in the aftermath of a sexual assault, and a $5,000 contribution to the city’s emergency assistance fund for crime victims, which helps address safety and basic needs.

The PERF assessment dates back to 2019, when Council passed an ordinance directing city staff to commission “a comprehensive evaluation of how reported sexual assaults are investigated and processed, including why a number of reported cases do not proceed to prosecution within the criminal justice system.” 

As reasons for the ordinance, Council members cited APD’s backlog of more than 4,000 rape kits dating back to the 1990s and a November 2018 report by Newsy, the Center for Investigative Reporting and ProPublica, which found more than 1,400 sexual assault cases were “exceptionally cleared” by APD, which means that the department was unable to arrest, charge and prosecute the offenders for reasons outside of its control. 

Early this year, Council voted to pay $825,000 to settle two lawsuits filed by sexual assault victims who alleged the city, along with Travis County, APD and the Travis County District’s Attorney’s Office, had mishandled their cases.

Alter acknowledged the plaintiffs at a Council meeting in January. “Thank you for persisting,” she said. “Thank you for focusing on systemic change and focusing to ensure that others do not have to experience the trauma that you have already been through.” 

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