Following a report that showed the Austin Police Department mishandled a number of sexual assault cases, along with other missteps regarding sex crimes, and calls for reform, the department is continuing to make adjustments to officer training, investigations and victim resources related to sexual assault cases, police Chief Joseph Chacon said.
The results of APD's ongoing look into its sex crime processes were shared during a Dec. 7 progress report to City Council. The briefing comes just over two months since Chacon's tenure officially began with a public confirmation hearing featuring in-depth questioning over his ability to take on what several officials have labeled as longtime organizational failures related to sexual assault cases.
During his December report, Chacon pointed to APD's increased staffing and training of its Sex Crimes Unit as well as coordination with victims and counselors as top recent improvements. He also noted his elevation of the department's manager for victim services as a visible example of the higher priority sex crimes and support for survivors are receiving under his watch. While stating that more work is still needed, council members largely agreed that Chacon and APD appear to be making progress.
“I believe that you are moving in the right direction, and I’m pleased to see the progress. 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," District 10 Council Member Alison Alter said. "All of those things are progress in the short amount of time since you’ve been leading, but those are very deep problems."
Alter was one of two council members to vote against Chacon's confirmation as the city's full-time police chief in September, in part due to APD's record with sex crimes and victims over his two-decade career with the department and six months as interim chief earlier this year. While taking a more favorable view this month, Alter also requested a written report on future training plans and asked to ensure that APD officers have avenues to bring concerns at the department to light. On the latter point, Alter noted an audit displaying the department's mishandling of hundreds of rape cases only happened due to reporting from within the department.
In addition to changes initiated within APD over recent months, Chacon said shifts are also taking place based on the results of that ongoing audit of sexual assault investigations. Initially expected to wrap up last spring, a combination of pandemic-related delays and stakeholder tweaks will now see that report completed by May.
The final review of how APD managed nearly a decade's worth of rape cases is still coming together. Still, Chacon said he is looking into several interim proposals forwarded by project evaluators at the Police Executive Research Forum earlier this year.
“We are not resting and waiting on that audit to come back. 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," he said.
Those concepts include more formalized training for the Sex Crimes Unit and better communication with victims during case interviews. Improved coordination with the district attorney's office leading up to potential legal action is also an item Chacon said APD and its officers are working on ahead of the audit's release next year.