Austin City Council to consider third-party review of how police handle sexual assault cases

Austin City Council will vote on whether to contract a third-party review of the Austin Police Department's handling of sexual assaults.

Austin City Council will vote on whether to contract a third-party review of the Austin Police Department's handling of sexual assaults.

Following the release of a Jan. 11 state audit report that found the Austin Police Department had incorrectly cleared or misclassified a majority of reviewed rape cases, four Austin City Council members and Mayor Steve Adler have sponsored a resolution calling for the city to hire a third party to evaluate how APD evaluates and processes reported sexual assaults.

Council Member Alison Alter posted a draft of the resolution to the online council message board Jan. 25. Council is scheduled to vote on the resolution at its first meeting of the year, Jan. 31.

“As a council, I and my colleagues feel that the community is calling on us to step forward,” Alter told Community Impact Newspaper.

In addition to the state audit, the resolution’s sponsors also cited a 12 percent year-over-year increase in reported rapes in 2017, the latest year for which data is available; the severe underreporting of sexual assaults nationally; the potential for a trauma-informed approach to sexual assault cases to yield wider success in clearing them; and a need to identify best practices in this domain.

“This resolution is to set us up so that we can create a system that is survivor-focused and healing-centered, that also provides our officers with the tools and resources that they need to handle these cases appropriately,” Alter said.

The scope of the resolution is broader than APD’s process for clearing sexual assault cases and specifies a review of “the entire life cycle of sexual assault cases with the APD," according to the draft.

This is by design, Alter said. “If we focus too much on data, we lose sight of the human factor.”

Reviewing APD’s processes

The state audit was prompted by a Nov. 15 article published by the investigative reporting website Reveal that found APD has classified as many as two-thirds of sexual assault cases “closed” when no arrest had been made.

In response, APD Chief Brian Manley requested the Texas Department of Public Safety review the department’s sexual assault clearance processes.

State auditors selected and reviewed 95 rape offenses that were exceptionally cleared by APD in January, November and December of 2017.

Exceptional clearance is a mechanism by which law enforcement agencies can close an investigation without making an arrest.

To do so, the agency must know the offender’s identity and location; have enough information to support an arrest, charge and case against him or her; and be unable to do so because of some reason outside law enforcement control, such as a survivor who stops participating in an investigation or a prosecutor who declines the case, according to the Universal Crime Reporting Handbook, which is published by the FBI.

Auditors found only 29 of the 95 cases reviewed met the requirements for exceptional clearance.

At a Jan. 16 press conference about the report’s findings, APD Chief Brian Manley said the audit revealed issues with the department’s coding process, not its investigations.

“Everyone is committed to doing the best we can by our community, employing best practices, and that is why we welcome this outside review,” Manley said of the audit.

Next steps

If approved by council Jan. 31, City Manager Spencer Cronk will be responsible for identifying potential contractors that can conduct this third-party review and funds to pay for it.

Once a contract is finalized, council will vote whether to approve it.

No time frame is specified for this process in the resolution.
By Emma Freer
Emma Freer began covering Central Austin for Community Impact Newspaper in 2017. Her beat includes the Travis County Commissioners Court and local business news. She graduated from Columbia Journalism School in 2017.


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