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Independent review identifies recommendations to improve Austin police's handling of sexual assaults

The report states that the department has taken "meaningful steps toward improvement."

AUSTIN, Texas — The final report into the Austin Police Department's (APD) handling of sexual assault cases has identified multiple recommendations for improvement, according to a press release from the City of Austin on Monday.

The 182-page report comes after an evaluation conducted by the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF), in conjunction with both the Women's Law Project and the Wellesley Centers for Women. The evaluation was conducted following a city council resolution approved in January 2019.

According to the City, the consulting team sought to understand how the APD approaches, processes and closes sexual assault cases, with a focus on victims' experiences.

PERF conducted a quantitative analysis of a 9-year sample of sexual assault cases reported between 2012 and 2020. Through that, it made an assessment of APD's written policies, procedures and training regarding sexual assault cases. It also performed a qualitative analysis of interviews with key stakeholders.

The PERF review was commissioned by the city manager's office after concerns were raised in 2018 about the way some sexual assault cases were incorrectly classified as "exceptionally cleared" when no arrests were made.

The final report states that significant improvements have since been made in the way APD classifies cases, stating that, in 2019, "there was only one case reviewed that was incorrectly classified as unfounded, and no cases reviewed were incorrectly cleared by exception." 

The consulting team did not find any 2020 cases incorrectly cleared by exception or incorrectly determined to be unfounded. 

The report states that the APD still needs to improve "several key aspects" of its response to sexual assault reports but overall, the consulting team found that the department has made "substantial progress" in several areas during the review period, "including a clear shift toward the prompt testing of sexual assault kits and the proper use of unfounded and exceptional clearance designations.”

"I’m happy many of these recommendations are already implemented, and I look forward to working on the others," APD Chief Joseph Chacon said. "This will ultimately be beneficial to our community and most importantly to survivors of sexual assault."

“As a woman, a mother and a policymaker, I believe the City has a responsibility to learn from our past failures – the DNA backlog, a high number of 'exceptionally cleared' rape cases and an under-resourced sex crimes unit,” said Mayor Pro Tem Alison Alter. “This report provides clear guidance on how we can improve our sexual assault response system in a survivor-focused way. I believe that how APD and the City build on this analysis will determine our ability to restore trust with the community.”

The city said that prior to the publication of the final report, APD had already made significant progress on implementing PERF's preliminary recommendations, published in June 2021. Additionally, the city stated APD immediately made several "positive revisions" to its policy and procedures to improve outcomes for sexual assault survivors. 

The department also renewed its cooperative working agreements with the Austin/Travis County Sexual Response and Resource Team (SARRT) and is attending the SARRT meetings, "bringing new ideas, sharing information and receiving suggestions in a positive way."

“I am eager to implement the additional recommendations in the final report,” Alter added. “Austin can become a model for other cities seeking to prevent and improve their responses to sexual assault, but we must keep listening and we must be committed to the systemic changes identified. We owe that to the survivors who fought for so long to be heard.”

The final report from the PERF review outlines further recommendations in the following areas:

  • Collection and preservation of information
  • Partnership with the Travis County District Attorney’s Office
  • Priority designation for sex crime-related calls 
  • Response on the scene of sexual assaults 
  • Resources and workload of members of APD’s Sex Crimes Unit 
  • Restoring community trust
  • Survivor interviews and information updates 
  • Training for officers and detectives 

The report also suggests that the APD form a working group to oversee the implementation of recommendations over the coming months.

Take a look at the full report.

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