AUSTIN (KXAN) — The Austin Police Department made “substantial progress” but still needs to improve in several key aspects of sexual assault reporting, according to an independent review of the department by the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF).
The 182-page PERF report, released Monday morning in a City memo, evaluated APD’s handling of sexual assaults reported to the department from 2012 to 2020. The evaluation and review were commissioned by Austin City Council in 2019 and done in conjunction with the Women’s Law Project and the Wellesley Centers for Women.
“There were a number of issues that were brought up that I think were fair to be brought up, that we should be correcting,” said Police Chief Joseph Chacon. “Over the last several years, we’ve been working towards making those corrections.”
The memo stated, “APD immediately made several positive revisions to their policy and procedures to improve outcomes for sexual assault survivors,” including quicker outreach to survivors for interviews, more frequent on-scene responses, more training, new technology and equipment and policy updates.
However, the memo called for APD to improve several aspects of its reporting policy.
The report found, as of the end of the 2020 review period, APD’s Sex Crimes Unit (SCU) detectives “infrequently” responded to the scene of the incident or hospital in most cases. Detectives’ interviews with victims, suspects and witnesses were “often delayed or fail[ed] to occur.”
Hanna Senko, a sexual assault survivor who joined other survivors in a lawsuit against the City, started reading the report shortly after it was released Monday morning. She said it addressed shortcomings she said she experienced when she previously reported a date rape to APD.
“An investigation wasn’t really held. It was multiple days before detectives were assigned,” she told KXAN in 2020. The report stated between 2012 and 2020, it took an average of 2.3 days for the department to assign a detective to a report.
“I think that’s something a number of survivors deal with,” said Senko. “I think the survivor experience can be very unique but also shared across a number of the items being identified.”
“In addition to the need to update antiquated sexual assault policies, APD officers, detectives, and supervisors tasked with responding to sexual assaults are insufficiently trained to do so,” the report stated.
Chacon noted training has since been overhauled and includes sessions pertaining to the sensitivity needed when dealing with sex assault cases.
“We have just really strove to make sure all of our folks are doing the most up-to-date, state-of-the art and industry-leading training that is occurring across the country. That’s what we send our folks to,” he said.
Key findings (according to PERF report)
- There were 12,235 reported sex crimes from 2012 to 2020. There was a sharp decline in reported sex crimes from 2017 to 2018, with 1,774 reports in 2017 and 901 reports in 2018. There was a more gradual decline from 2018 to 2020.
- A majority of the time patrol officers’ reports of sexual assault complaints provided accurate and essential information to begin the investigation.
- Compared to other large police agencies across the country, APD Victim Services Division, comprised of non-sworn counselors, sets the standard as a best practice in responding to and supporting victims and survivors of sexual assault.
- Detectives arrived at the scene or hospital in only 17% of the sexual assault cases reviewed. The proportion of cases receiving an on-scene detective response decreased from a high of 27.4% of cases in 2013 to a low of 12.4% of cases in 2020.
- More than three-fifths (63.5%) of sex crime felony reports from 2012–2020 were made outside the standard Sex Crimes Unit working hours of Monday through Friday, 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. Outside those hours, only two detectives are on call.
- It took an average of 2.3 days for a report to be assigned to a detective from 2012–2020. The detective assignment time has varied over the years, from an average low of under two days from 2012–2014 to an average high of 3.9 days in 2015, followed by an average of 2.3 days from 2016–2019, to an increase to an average of 3.2 days in 2020.
- Generally, sergeants only assign cases during detectives’ core hours of 6 a.m. to 6 p.m., Monday through Friday, though reports of sexual assault deemed to be more serious may be assigned immediately on weekends. A sex crime that occurs on a Friday night may not be assigned until Monday, and, under current policy, the detective assigned still has two working days to attempt contact. In this example, the victim is likely to wait up to four days or longer to hear from a detective.
- In 49% (700) of the 1,430 cases reviewed by the project team, the victim was never formally interviewed by the detective. Initial interviews were conducted by patrol officers in all cases reviewed. In response to this and other findings in this section, APD stated that victim consent was needed to take the next investigative steps, including formal victim interviews, witness interviews, suspect interviews, and collection of time-sensitive evidence.
- In the 51% (730) of cases where formal interviews did occur, it took an average of 17 days from the time of the report until the detective met with the victim.
- Detectives’ first attempt to contact the victim often occurred days after the incident was reported. If the first call to the victim was not successful, detectives often waited days before making another attempt.
- In many cases, detectives did not interview witnesses or collect time-sensitive evidence between case assignment and the formal interview
Recommendations (according to PERF report)
- APD should ensure all sex crime-related calls for service are designated high priority (priority level 0 or 1, meaning officers are expected to respond quickly), regardless of when the incident occurred. This will prioritize the needs of victims due to the sensitive nature of the crime.
- If APD is unable to treat all sex crime-related calls as high priority, supervisors should limit the number of sexual assault calls for service they are downgrading in priority level. If a dispatcher cannot promptly assign a sex crime call to a patrol officer, the dispatcher or supervisor should immediately contact the 911 caller to inform them of the delay and the anticipated response time. APD should consider setting a time limit, perhaps 15 minutes, at which point the dispatcher will contact the 911 caller about the delayed police response.
- SCU detectives should be assigned to work day and evening shifts seven days a week, at a minimum. Data indicates that most sex crimes are reported in the evening and on weekends. In addition to daytime coverage Monday through Friday, SCU should assign sufficient detectives during evening and weekend hours to manage the workload.
- Detectives should respond to the scene, the hospital, and/or the victim’s location for felony sexual assaults.
- Sergeants should assign cases to the detective who responded to the crime scene, the hospital, or the victim’s location when feasible.
- Detectives should evaluate the victim for impairment, including impairment from drugs or alcohol, when determining the timeframe for a formal interview. Detectives should ensure that victims who are not ready to talk — due to impairment, fatigue or state of mind — are allowed to rest. In these circumstances, detectives should inform victims that they will soon be contacted to schedule a formal interview, which should occur within two to three days.
- Detectives must make and document at least three attempts to contact the victim within seven days of case assignment, documenting all attempts in the case file, including date, time, method used (call, email, in person), and results. If the attempts to contact the victim in the first week are unsuccessful, the detective should make two more attempts the following week, using a variety of contact methods. If still unsuccessful, the detective should discuss the next steps with the supervisor.
The report suggested APD form a working group to oversee the implementation of recommendations over the coming months, according to a City of Austin release.
APD will carefully review these recommendations in the coming months in an effort to continue making progress in these areas, the memo stated.