The City of Austin will conduct an independent review of sexual assault investigations handled by the Austin Police Department. The Austin City Council voted unanimously Thursday to undertake the audit, which was spurred by community concerns over how the department classifies and investigates cases.
“The goal of the evaluation is to understand the deeper why behind the problems we are seeing with reported sexual assault cases in Austin,” said Council Member Alison Alter, who announced last week she and some of her colleagues would call for an audit.
“We can be a model for countless other communities in how we address sexual assault.”
The Council vote directs city management to hire a third-party investigator who will inspect sexual assaults reported to police over the past seven years. The audit will look at least 200 cases, or 50 percent of the cases each year – whichever number is greater. Investigators will track incidents from when they were first reported to police to when they were closed by APD, or handed off to the District Attorney's office for prosecution.
Alter’s office estimates the review could cost anywhere from $200,000 to $1 million.
Earlier this month, Police Chief Brian Manley called for an outside review of how police investigate sexual assaults after state auditors found that detectives wrongly cleared without arrest nearly a third of rape cases over a three-month period in 2017. However, after Council’s formal call for a independent review, there will only be one review of the department going forward.
Advocates for sexual assault survivors have say APD’s pattern of misclassifying rape cases is part of a larger, more systemic issue with how the department investigates sexual assault cases. Manley has refuted that argument.
Survivors and advocates gathered at City Hall Thursday ahead of council members’ vote, wearing yellow scarves, necklaces and bandanas – a symbol of hope, one advocate said.
“I know survivors that have never been contacted by their detectives, who never got the results from their rape kits. I know survivors who were told their tortures sounded consensual,” said Marina Conner, who is a plaintiff in a lawsuit alleging that local law enforcement mishandled sexual assault cases because of gender bias.
“Passing this resolution will give survivors across Austin hope that the people who are supposed to protect us want to do better and want to do the right thing.”
While council members did not set a deadline for the review, they asked City Manager Spencer Cronk to return to Council within six months with an update on the progress of the review.
Last year, journalists with ProPublica, Newsy and the Center for Investigative Reporting revealed that local police departments were using overusing what’s called “exceptional clearance” to close rape cases. In those cases, police know a suspect accused of rape but are unable to arrest that suspect because of reasons outside their control.
The review council members ordered on Thursday applies only to the Austin Police Department, as Council does not have jurisdiction over the Travis County District Attorney’s Office, which handles the prosecution of sexual assault cases.
On Tuesday, Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt and former state Sen. Wendy Davis announced they would be creating a community group to advocate for survivors of sexual assault. A similar group has existed since 1992.