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APD has improved response to sexual assault cases but there’s more work to do, report finds

Tuesday, November 15, 2022 by Sangita Menon, KUT

While the Austin Police Department has improved its handling of sexual assault cases in some areas – like sending sexual assault kits for DNA analysis faster and correctly classifying more cases – there’s still room for improvement, a new report finds.

Researchers with the Police Executive Research Forum, a nonprofit research and policy group, looked at police policies and analyzed 30 percent of APD’s sexual assault cases from 2012 through 2020, or about 1,430 of the 4,700 reported cases during that period. Austin City Council called for the analysis in 2019 after concerns were raised about how some cases were incorrectly classified and considered “cleared.”

The report generated dozens of recommendations on how the department could improve its handling of sexual assault cases.

Researchers found, for example, that by characterizing more than half of the sexual assaults as “non-urgent,” it slowed officer response time. They also found that APD’s Sex Crimes Unit policy didn’t require detectives to go to the hospital or scene of an assault, so they ended up going in only about 17 percent of cases. Detectives also delayed reaching out to victims and witnesses, and in about half the cases, didn’t reach out at all.

“Responding more quickly to sexual assault reports and improving communication with victims can not only increase the chances of an arrest and successful prosecution,” the report said, “but also convey to victims that their case is being handled professionally and that they are being taken seriously.”

The report did find some improvements. In 2017, it took APD on average about three months to send sexual assault kits to a lab for DNA analysis and took those private labs eight months to get results back. But by 2019, APD was able to comply with a new state law requiring it to send kits to a lab within a month and the labs to provide results within three months.

APD also had been wrongly clearing cases using “exceptional clearance.” The designation is intended to be used only if a suspect is identified, and police have enough information to charge the person but can’t because of something outside of APD’s control. This includes cases in which a suspect dies, is in another jurisdiction’s custody or can’t be extradited, or if the victim refuses to cooperate in the prosecution. The report found that while APD applied exceptional clearance to about 25 percent of cases, it was applicable only in about 9 percent of them. In 2017, however, after an audit and training, that rate of misclassification began trending downward.

Researchers concluded that APD should assign a group to determine how to implement the report’s recommendations, set a timeline for when the changes will be made and continuously monitor to measure progress.

The report suggested APD have a public dashboard to share its progress to “hold APD accountable to the community and encourage continued progress.”

KUT reached out to the Austin Police Department and the Police Executive Research Forum for comment, but did not hear back before deadline.

This story was produced as part of the Austin Monitor’s reporting partnership with KUT.

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