What’s being done to better handle sexual assault cases in Austin

Crime
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AUSTIN (KXAN) — The Austin Police Department is providing details on changes it’s made in the handling of sexual assault cases.

The changes come after the city of Austin and Travis County were first sued in 2018 for mishandling three women’s sexual assault cases. A second lawsuit was brought forward by additional sexual assault survivors in 2020.

In June, Travis County settled its part of the lawsuit with survivors, who claimed the county refused to prosecute their cases and failed to test DNA evidence for years. Fourteen survivors in total received $20,000 each.

An additional $250,000 from the settlement was designated to make changes within the Travis County District Attorney’s office, including better training on handling sexual assault cases for all staff members and the regular release of data to the public about how sexual assault cases are being handled.

“This really, for us, starts from a place of ensuring that survivors are believed,” Travis County District Attorney José Garza told KXAN in an interview Monday.

Garza says prosecutors and other staff members in his office have completed more than 15 different trainings designed to improve their response to survivors of sexual assault and domestic violence so far this year.

Garza says survivors now have more input in their cases. He also says his office is now taking extra steps to make sure cases with insufficient evidence aren’t dismissed too easily.

The DA’s office has also strengthened the power of its Director of Victim Services, making it a senior leadership position, “To ensure that the perspective and views of survivors are infused in everything we do,” Garza said.

Even as litigation between survivors and the city is ongoing, APD’s counterpart in that position has also been elevated. The department’s Victim Services Manager now answers directly to Police Chief Joseph Chacon and thus has a direct line of contact with the top of command.

That change and others were detailed in presentation slides made available on the city’s website. APD was scheduled to brief the city’s Public Safety Committee on the changes Monday, but the committee meeting was canceled.

Austin City Council Member Greg Casar, who pushed for the strengthening of the Victim Services Manager says he hopes the change prevents issues like Austin’s major rape kit backlog in the future.

Austin’s city council ordered that a large-scale evaluation be done examining the department’s handling of sex assault cases over the past seven years to identify the reasons why so few moved forward to prosecution and come up with solutions to change that moving forward.

According to APD, its Sex Crimes Unit has expanded, with the department adding one new detective position in 2021. Before that, two detectives and a sergeant were added to the unit in 2019 and four detective positions were added in 2017, as concerns about the department’s handling of sex assault cases were coming to light.

APD also increased the number of Victim Service counselors available to assist survivors of abuse. The Sex Crimes Unit now has five full-time counselors, the Domestic Violence Unit has eight and APD’s Crisis Team has 17 Victim Service Counselors assigned to it.

APD says protocol and the development of guidelines have also changed within the Sex Crimes Cold Case Unit.

One of the protocols implemented in 2019 after the first lawsuit requires that Victim Services Crisis Response Team Counselors be dispatched to all sex crime calls with officers.

APD also redesigned its interview rooms to make them more comfortable for survivors of sexual assault and implemented a new policy allowing victims the option of having a counselor sit in with them during police interviews.

Additionally, Police Chief Joseph Chacon re-joined the Sexual Assault Response and Resource Team (SARRT) and is attending monthly meetings with the multi-agency group dealing with local response to sex crimes and services for survivors.

SARRT co-chair Liz Donegan, who previously led APD’s Sex Crimes Unit for nearly a decade and brought forward concerns about the mishandling of cases says it’s too early to tell whether changes implemented are truly making a difference. Donegan says the group is cautiously optimistic and hopeful that Chief Chacon rejoining SARRT will provide needed change long-term.

Casar says he’s pushing for city attorneys and council to come together over the next couple of months to reach a settlement with the sexual assault survivors suing the city. As of right now, one of the cases is making its way through federal court while the other has been refiled in state court, according to survivors’ attorneys.

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