AUSTIN (KXAN) — A new report outlines the hundreds of thousands of dollars a third-party evaluator recommends the City of Austin invests in the Austin Police Department’s sex crimes unit (SCU).
The Police Executive Research Forum (PERF) started reviewing APD’s practices during sex assault investigations, and a Texas Department of Public Safety audit found many cases were cleared incorrectly.
APD has already begun to implement some changes, like trauma-informed training for officers, said Chief Joseph Chacon. There’s also now a 24-detective team in the SCU that deals solely with cold cases. Chacon said the department is caught up on testing rape kits and is getting those tests to the lab at a quicker rate.
“The [SCU] case loads are not the biggest of all our detectives, but they’re the most complex, because it’s one of the hardest to prove,” said Chacon.
The new audit, “Financial Considerations from PERF’s Review of the Austin Police Department’s Handling of Sexual Assault Cases,” recommends funding for the below resources.
- APD should contract community advocates to conduct an annual case review (Estimated annual cost: $75,000-$100,000)
- Dedicated crime analyst (Estimated annual salary: $62,400)
- Additional trauma-informed training (Estimated annual cost: $15,000)
- Better processes to analyze evidence
- Nine SCU detective vehicles and five vehicles for victims services (Estimated cost: $225,000 and $100,000, respectively)
- Body-camera tripods for detective-survivor interviews (Estimated cost: $2,000)
- Victim surveys (Estimated cost: $40,000-$50,000 for design and implementation)
- Victim transportation voucher system
- Staffing study, if needed
We spoke with both Chacon as well as Juliana Gonzales, the senior director of sexual assault services with SAFE Alliance.
“We’re always striving to improve,” said Chacon, who wasn’t in charge at the time of the audited mishandlings. “We support the vast majority of the recommendations.”
The chief said staffing issues contribute to the fact the department doesn’t currently have a dedicated crime analyst. A crime analyst can help identify sex assault trends in the community.
“Because of the number of separations we’ve had, we actually had to pull that crime analyst back,” said Chacon. “Now what we’re hoping to do is get those positions filled, so we can get that crime analyst back.”
Gonzales spoke to the necessity for this position in the community.
“I see that being a need, because we’ve identified in the community cases before where the same M.O. or same location keeps coming up, and it takes a while to identify,” she said.
The SCU is one of the department’s biggest units, according to Chacon. He said it includes a lieutenant, three sergeants and 20 detectives. One sergeant and a group of detectives work cold cases and the rest work active cases.
The new report calls for funding for at least 15 new vehicles specifically for the SCU.
According to the report, detectives can’t perform all of their duties because of the lack of cars, and counselors don’t always have a way to give survivors ride to interviews.
“Vehicles, I can tell you are an issue in our department in every single unit,” said Chacon. “There have been delays in that happening because of chip shortages. For example, we placed a very large order with Ford for some vehicles and they said… maybe we’ll be able to get you three of these vehicles.
The PERF review is almost over. A previous City of Austin memo stated the final findings would be released in August. This week’s report calls for APD to organize an annual review with an advocacy group.
“We want that process to continue,” said Chacon, who suggested incorporating reviews into the department’s meetings with the Austin-Travis County Sexual Assault Response and Resource Team. “We’re looking right now at the annual recommendation but could we do even better than that. We could do it quarterly, because we meet with them on a quarterly basis.”
“I think continued evaluation is always a good thing,” Gonzales added. “Especially in light of a decades-long problem.”
The funding decisions will ultimately be up to the city council.
A city spokesperson provided the following comment on the report:
“As we have just received the recommendations, funding for the recommendations has not been included in the FY 23 Proposed Budget. APD staff will need time to comprehensively evaluate how we might implement the recommendations. They have been provided to the City Council to review for potential budget amendments. Ultimately, it would be up to Council to determine whether any of these financial commitments are included in the FY23 budget.”City of Austin Spokesperson
“The city should be making investments in how we handle sex assault survivors’ cases,” said Gonzales, who added she believes survivors need additional support from the community and systems other than the police department as well.