An independent, city-backed evaluation of the Austin Police Department's handling of reported sexual assaults through the 2010s has expanded to cover two additional years of case files and added nearly $200,000 in costs.

The city's push to dive into APD practices has been in the works for more than two years and came in part due to responses to a Texas Department of Public Safety audit report finding that APD mishandled a portion of 2017 sexual assault cases. Per that report, many cases were closed without the arrest of any suspects.

After that audit's release, City Council in February 2019 unanimously backed a resolution to launch a review into hundreds of APD rape investigations logged over a seven-year span. The Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit Police Executive Research Forum was brought on in September 2019 to tackle the project, previously estimated to cost just over $762,000.

Case reviewers with PERF, the Women’s Law Project and Wellesley Centers for Women have already been examining APD sexual assault investigations for months. However, Assistant City Manager Rey Arellano said in a June 17 memo that factors including the COVID-19 pandemic, legal reviews and technical difficulties have since led to the case review process stretching well beyond its proposed May 2021 end date.

Despite the deadline's move back, the city said it is not concerned about the extra time the review is taking given the unanticipated barriers that have cropped up since last year.

"The process does appear to be tracking well considering the challenges that have impacted the overall timeline. The city manager’s office and PERF regularly meet to ensure the project is progressing," a city spokesperson said.

In addition to those delays, PERF this March asked to shift the review's original timeframe, covering cases logged from 2012-18, to include more recent data and to more effectively connect any findings to current APD employees. Evaluators met with several city officials including District 10 Council Member Alison Alter, who had sponsored the 2019 resolution calling for the investigation, to consider updating the project and including more recent years' cases.

Evaluators also conferred with local sexual assault response and advocacy groups and eventually moved onto a new plan that will see 2019 and 2020 cases added to the overall review while reducing the number of cases considered from 50% to 30% annually.

Becky Austen, chair of the Austin Commission for Women, said the extended timeframe is now likely for the best given the review's expansion and additional resources. The women's board has for years engaged with issues related to sexual assault and victims' safety, including the APD review, and the commission on July 7 received a briefing on the process and delay.

"I would rather see the process take longer and be done right than to say, let’s hold to the schedule unnaturally and have to cut corners on the process or short-circuit something," Austen said. "I feel like the extension of the schedule was done for the right reasons and has been done thoughtfully to have better outcomes on behalf of survivors."

With the recent change in scope, Arellano said the PERF-led team is now looking at a November deadline for its remaining reviews. The project will now include around 500 fewer cases than originally proposed, a more than 25% decrease, at an estimated additional cost of $187,949, or nearly 25% more. PERF's final report on the process is expected next May.

Case review and recommendations

According to the city, case reviews so far have been conducted by nine evaluators from PERF and the women's organizations, with two additional reviewers now in training. Much of this year's additional funding for the project will be spent on boosted staffing, the city said.

During case review, evaluators have gathered random samples of APD cases and are poring over general case and narrative details, basic backgrounds on those involved and information on how cases were moved through APD's clearance system. The city said audio and video files such as victim interviews are not presently included in the review and that PERF will move to parse through a smaller sample of those materials with victims in the future.

So far, reviewers have worked through around 500 cases from 2014-18.

“The origin of this is that the handling of sexual assault cases has not been optimal in APD, and so the question is, what’s going to give folks more confidence that, having done this evaluation, that the right kind of changes are going to be made going forward?" Austen said. "We feel as if the way that they've selected the cases and that, that’s been done independent from the police department should help to alleviate concerns there.”

While the release of the evaluation's final results are nearly one year away, Arellano in June also shared several of PERF's opening findings from the cases it has examined over so far. Among the research forum's initial observations were the need to improve training in the APD Sex Crimes Unit and adjust how the unit's detectives respond to reported rapes. Suggestions there included stronger requirements for attempting to connect with and interview victims as well as visiting the scenes of alleged sexual assaults.

PERF also said APD lieutenants could begin regular reviews of their detectives' sexual assault case files and that the department's process of presenting cases before a district attorney be more thorough and better documented.

As of early July, the city said most of those notes have yet to be acted on by APD given that the project remains "very much in progress." However, based on PERF's work so far, the police department has purchased 15 laptops this spring for its sex crimes unit detectives. Additional recommendations will also be included in PERF's overview next year.

"As the review continues, PERF will update the observations based on more recent information obtained from the 2019 and 2020 cases, survivor interviews, remaining policies/procedures for review and on additional information provided by APD. In its final report, PERF will note whether APD has already addressed some of the recommendations along with an explanation of the changes made," the Austin spokesperson said.

For the time being, Austen said she is thankful that city officials have pushed for the independent investigation over recent years and that any final results may be centered on producing effective changes for the way victims are treated after experiencing and reporting an assault.

“My hopes stem from survivors. My hope is that survivors feel that they’ve been heard, that there’s a greater sense of justice and how the system is working for them rather than them having to push up against a system," she said. "They’ve already been traumatized. There’s no need for the criminal justice and investigative process to further criminalize or traumatize them."