A series of shortcomings within the Austin Police Department's Sex Crimes Unit has yet to be addressed despite some recent progress, according to an audit of nearly 1,500 sexual assault investigations conducted by APD that also outlined a roadmap for further improvements.

The deep dive was commissioned by city leaders in 2019 after concerns about APD's sex crimes practices built up over several years. The evaluation, led by the Police Executive Research Forum along with the Women’s Law Project and the Wellesley Centers for Women, produced a 182-page report released Nov. 14 detailing problems such as "systemic issues" in the forensics lab, a backlog of rape kits and the "improper" closure of cases—as well as a slate of recommended fixes for the department.

The PERF-led review examined how APD responded to 1,430 sexual assault cases from 2012-20, representing a random sample of 30% of the 4,700 total cases reported in that time frame. Auditors ran through information such as the demographics of victims and suspects, the police response to incidents, the handling of investigations and evidence, and how APD policy was followed in each case.

“While APD’s Sex Crimes Unit has experienced numerous challenges in the last decade, APD has learned lessons and taken meaningful steps toward improvement, as the authors of this report recognize,” Assistant City Manager Rey Arellano said in a statement. “We know there is still work to do, and APD will carefully review these new recommendations in an effort to continue making progress to ensure the needs of survivors are at the heart of our law enforcement response.”

The report's release comes months after Austin paid out $875,000 to settle lawsuits filed against the city for systemic failures in APD's response to sex crime cases, including alleged bias toward and mistreatment of survivors.

In its report, the PERF said APD showed a willingness to work with analysts and correct aspects of its operations and noted some "encouraging" signs based on improved outcomes in the latter years of the study period. However, they also pointed to lacking procedures that validated the long-held concerns of local advocates and the need to rebuild the community's trust.

Mayor Pro Tem Alison Alter, who led council's call for the evaluation in 2019, said Austin is in a better spot now than then and that she is hopeful APD is moving in the right direction—with more work to be done.

“In my view, this report provides us the road map that we need to take the next steps to improve our sexual assault response system," Alter told Community Impact. "It appears from first look to reflect our desire to have a survivor-centered approach and to unpack the system that has been built over many years that’s not serving us well.”

Issues identified

The study covered several top issues related to the process of sexual assault investigations. Researchers found more than half of sexual assault calls were designated by APD as nonurgent—slowing the response—and called out the department's practice of not staffing detectives on nights or weekends, when most sex crimes are reported.

Reviewers also highlighted APD detectives' low rate of responses to the scene of a sex crime, a statistic that dropped off in more recent years even as fewer incidents were reported; that trend was noted as one "raising questions deserving further study."

APD's Sex Crimes Unit generally does not require a police response to the scene of a sex crime or to the hospital. Among reviewed cases, the PERF found detectives did so only 17% of the time from 2012-20. And even when in-person connections were made, detectives interviewed victims 51% of the time.

In the 72% of cases in which a suspect was identified, they were "rarely" interviewed by detectives—less than one-third of the time.

"Detectives’ interviews with victims, suspects and witnesses are often delayed or fail to occur. 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," reviewers said.

Another problem addressed in the review was APD's practice of exceptionally clearing rape cases, or closing them without ever making an arrest due to developments such as a suspect's death or a declined prosecution. Of the PERF's 1,430-case sample, more than one-quarter were exceptionally cleared. And of that grouping, the majority—nearly 64%—were inappropriately closed.

Improper clearances came after police failed to seek out suspects, did not interview any parties involved or failed to follow up with victims who were initially reluctant to move forward with a case.

Other findings included:

  • Cases involving a suspect known by the victim were more likely to be exceptionally cleared than those involving a stranger.

  • Of 80 cases APD determined were "unfounded," more than one-fourth should not have been classified as such.

  • APD did not follow policy and honor victims' requests to use pseudonyms in public files with names displayed "multiple" times.

  • APD officers are not trained to respond to sexual assaults beyond three hours of police academy instruction.

  • Members of APD's Sex Crimes Unit reported facing an "overwhelming workload."

  • Men and victims experiencing homelessness were less likely to see their case investigations advance.

  • Nonwhite victims' cases appeared to progress on similar tracks as those of white victims, but they were more likely to have their cases end up exceptionally cleared.

  • Nearly two-thirds of analyzed cases were never discussed with the Travis County District Attorney’s Office. Of the 35% that were discussed, prosecution was declined in more than half, while the remaining cases' status was unclear.

  • Detectives often cut back their investigation efforts too early based on their views on possible legal outcomes, a mentality labeled as "unfair" that may have limited arrests and potential justice for victims.

Road map for progress

With improper case closures in focus throughout the process, reviewers noted APD appears to have corrected its previous clearance trend after the problem had been publicized. The PERF said the department improved its use of the "unfounded" case designation and found improper clearances essentially halted beginning in 2019.

Another sign of progress is the timeline of APD's handling of sexual assault kits. Reviewers said it took an average of 108 days to submit those kits to its lab in 2017, followed by a 245-day time frame for the lab to return an analysis—just under one year. In 2018, APD cut its time frame to 27 days, while the lab process sped up slightly with a 243-day average timeline to return results. And in 2019 and 2020, APD sent out kits within an average of 30 days, and the lab returned results within 90 days, meeting state requirements.

Even so, reviewers also noted APD frequently failed to gather evidence in the first place.

“There were many cases reviewed that did not result in the collection of [sexual assault kit] evidence, including cases that were promptly reported by victims who were willing to undergo an examination," the report stated.

Despite some more negative findings related to investigations, auditors broadly commended the work APD's Victim Services Division. The trauma-informed unit was hailed as one that "sets the standard as a best practice" in response to sexual assaults and treatment of victims, a finding Alter pointed to as a "bright spot" in the report.

Reviewers also praised APD's response to several interim recommendations provided by the PERF last year while the audit was in progress. The police department made "significant progress" on those items, reviewers said, with multiple policy changes they said have improved the process for victims.

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

Alter noted the city has already acted on several other recommendations issued months before the full report's release. While a long list of process improvements remains to be addressed at APD, she said most PERF proposals that required city funding were covered in this summer's budget process.

When city officials unanimously agreed to settle the lawsuits brought by survivors in January, they also signed off on request from Alter related to the then-unfinished PERF report. That measure directs city management to lay out a plan to implement all of the PERF's recommendations within 45 days of the report's release, which would fall in December.

“There are real best practices out there. We now have a road map of how to do that; we have guidance of how to do that. If we do these things, we can really move the needle so that someone who has this traumatic experience of being sexually assaulted, when they enter into the system, they will feel like they have been treated with dignity and that they are on the path to healing and justice," Alter said. "That is the goal. We’re not at that goal yet.”