How can Austin police solve more sex assault cases?

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AUSTIN (KXAN) — When a case is closed, it doesn’t necessarily mean the crime is solved.

The Texas Department of Public Safety is auditing “exceptional clearance cases” at the Austin Police Department Tuesday through Thursday. Part of that term means victims who have decided not to testify or cooperate with an investigation, according to Rebecca Webber, the chair of the Public Safety Commission.

“It’s a gray area,” Webber said.

The audit will be conducted in three phases: administrative review, data quality review and exit briefing. 

During the administrative review, DPS will take a closer look into how Austin Police manage incidents and whether the data submitted to the state complies with the FBI’s crime reporting guidelines.

Under the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting Handbook, a case can be exceptionally cleared if it meets certain criteria:

  • Has the investigation definitely established the identity of the offender?
  • Is there enough information to support an arrest, charge, and turning over to the court for prosecution?
  • Is the exact location of the offender known so that the subject could be taken into custody
  • Is there some reason outside law enforcement control that precludes arresting, charging,
    and prosecuting the offender?

Three auditors will look at three months of cases — January, November and December 2017. DPS auditors did not specify why these months were selected.

They will also review the case files, including the officer’s report and document any discrepancies. They’ll then brief APD and later the Austin Public Safety Commission on what they find, and then see what changes the city can make to clear more cases by actually solving them.

During next month’s Public Safety Commission meeting, commissioners will be looking into why some people who are sexually assaulted choose not to help with the investigation.

Webber and other commissioners want to know if sex assault victims don’t want to be part of the process because they are not supported throughout the investigation. They also want to know ways detectives can better help them navigate that process.

An investigation by ProPublica in mid-November started this dive into Austin’s police department. It analyzed more than 60 police agencies, including Austin. It found APD cleared 388 of the 767 rape cases opened in 2016, but most of them were defined as “exceptional clearance.”

Webber praised APD for being transparent about the numbers and for adding more investigators to sex assault cases, but still wants to improve how those cases are handled.

“I think one area where there could be some improvement is to hire more social workers,” Webber said. “[Social workers could] work along with those detectives to make sure we are protecting victims, and helping them and facilitating them being able to anticipate in a prosecution.”

In a press conference Tuesday afternoon, Austin Police Chief Brian Manley explained that cases are cleared exceptionally for four reasons.

“We believe we have probable cause to make an arrest, we know who the offender is, we know where they live, but for one of those reasons, we are not making that arrest,” Manley said.

The four reasons are:

  • The suspect died.
  • The suspect is being charged in another jurisdiction.
  • The District Attorney’s Office doesn’t believe there’s enough of a case to move forward with prosecution
  • The victim isn’t cooperating.

Chief Manley admitted, “We have a higher level of exceptional clearances here in Austin than in some of the other communities.” 

Rape survivor Marina Conner says she feels that’s a problem. She says she spent two and a half years working with investigators on her case.

“I’m processing my own trauma and trying to figure out what happened to me, and then having people ask me questions and want to know details, it’s a really difficult thing to do,” Conner said.

Conner says while she was willing to cooperate, she understands why other victims find it too hard. 

She says despite her willingness to cooperate with the investigation, she was told her case had been exceptionally cleared because the District Attorney’s Office wouldn’t move forward with a lack of DNA evidence.

“It really hurts me to know that my case is presented as cleared to the public when, in reality, my rapist is on the street, and I am struggling to make it through my day to day life,” Conner said. “And so many other survivors in Austin are.” 

Chief Manley says even if cases are exceptionally cleared because a victim doesn’t want to cooperate at the time, if that victim ever comes back and wants to move forward, APD wil reopen the case.

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