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Austin police chief gives update on how department is improving its handling of sexual assault cases

These changes come after an audit showed the department mishandled a significant number of sexual assault cases in the past, with many incorrectly cleared.

AUSTIN, Texas — At Tuesday's Austin City Council meeting, Police Chief Joseph Chacon gave an update on the Austin Police Department's Victim Services Unit and how it has been handling sexual assault cases.

The changes Chacon discussed were spurred by a 2019 audit report by the Texas Department of Public Safety that revealed a significant number of rape cases were mishandled by APD, leading them to be incorrectly cleared or misclassified.

Chacon said that since the audit, APD has been increasing staffing. The Sex Crimes Unit now has 20 full-time detectives, three sergeants, one lieutenant and one commander. There is also a victims services manager and five full-time victim services counselors. Outside of that unit, APD has an additional 24 counselors who serve in units like crisis services and domestic violence. 

Chacon said APD has been having new detectives work with the Sexual Assault Response and Resource Team (SARRT) to get them better trained. APD also recently made a change to where a police officer and a counselor are dispatched to the scene of a sex crime at the same time. In previous years, the officer would be dispatched alone and a counselor would only be called if the officer felt that one was needed or the victim requested one.

Chacon said this is all a part of the department trying to be more victim-centered when handling these cases. 

District 10 Councilmember Alison Alter is asking Chacon to provide the council with a written plan for the training for the sex crimes detectives. She said she would like for him to include the minimum requirements and the timeframe for training a new detective in the unit. 

Chacon mentioned he thinks APD can get that plan to City leaders by next month or early February.

"I believe that you are moving in the right direction, and I'm pleased to see the progress," Alter said. "You are saying the right things; you are recognizing the need to prioritize our victims; you're being transparent about the processes; you are emphasizing training and collaboration and you're working with the Sexual Assault Response and Resource Team and recognizing the value that our Victim Services Manager places."

Chacon said APD is also focused on processing rape test kits and evidence quickly. 

"I can tell you that today, there is no backlog," Chacon said. "State law says that we have to enter those and to make sure that everything is submitted within 90 days, and we have been meeting about a 60-day timeline, so we're actually doing better than what state law mandates."

The audit is ongoing, but Chacon said APD will keep making these positive changes as the process continues. 

"We are not resting and waiting on that audit to come back," Chacon said. "We have been working on all of the recommendations and fulfilling those that could be fulfilled and working on those that are going to take a little bit more time."


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