AUSTIN (KXAN) – Austin City Council members approved several items Thursday as part of a considerable effort to improve the Austin Police Department’s handling of sexual assault cases following years of issues.
In 2016, an audit showed that APD lab technicians weren’t using proper techniques when calculating the odds of DNA results, potentially botching thousands of cases. Further, the audit found that evidence had been contaminated in at least one case and that lab technicians were using expired materials. The DNA lab closed in 2017.
Later, a group of women filed a lawsuit against the City of Austin, alleging improper handling of sexual assault investigations. In Jan. 2022, the plaintiffs were awarded $825,000 and an additional $50,000 to their attorneys.
Then, in 2022, the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF) conducted an independent review of the department, making over 100 recommendations for improvement for the APD Sex Crimes Unit.
“We’re looking at making systemic change,” said District 10 Council Member Alison Alter. “We have a series of recommendations that came from the lawsuit [and] that came from this comprehensive evaluation from the Police Executive Research Forum,” she continued.
In January 2023, nearly 50 members of APD and community advocates came together to form a working group, the Collective Sex Crimes Response Model Project, to implement the recommendations from the audit and terms of the lawsuit settlement.
On Thursday, the Austin City Council approved nearly $1 million in funding aligned with the group’s vision.
- $100,000 for a review of sexual assault cases opened between January 2021 to December 2022
- $237,500 to go towards a comprehensive audit of APD’s Sex Crimes Unit
- $106,062.78 in grant funding to bring five retired investigators with extensive violent crime investigations experience to the APD Sex Crimes Unit.
- $507,510 to fund five new positions – two victim counselors and three victims navigators – to help victims of crime.
“The working groups are going to continue to work on individual issues that were recommendations, either from the lawsuit or from the report. And they’re going to be trying to solve all those pieces,” Alter said.
“We will continue to build trust, transparency, and repair with our community and among the project’s team members. Collectively, we have an understanding that process is just as important as the model we are working hard to create,” Lieutenant Chris Leleux, APD Sex Crimes Unit, said Tuesday at a city council work session.