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Council Member Alter Calls For Third Party To Investigate Sexual Assault Cases In Austin

Gabriel C. Pérez

City Council Member Alison Alter posted a resolution today that would direct the city manager to find a third-party investigator to look at how sexual assault cases are handled in Austin.

The resolution asks for a comprehensive evaluation of how reported sexual assaults are investigated and processed, as well as why many are not prosecuted.

“We all recognize that our system is not created to provide healing and justice to sexual assault survivors,” Alter told KUT. “This resolution [is to] help us to get the information and the data that we need as a council to get to that deeper ‘why’ behind the problems we’re seeing so that we can create a system that is survivor focused.”

A “qualified third-party” would examine adult sexual assaults cases reported to the Austin Police Department over the past seven years. The resolution asks for a minimum of either 200 cases or 50 percent of cases per year, whichever number is greater.

The resolution comes after auditors at the Texas Department of Public Safety found APD failed to meet federal criteria for the "exceptional clearance" of a rape case in nearly a third of cases it reviewed.

A case is exceptionally cleared when the police have identified a suspect but cannot arrest that person because of reasons outside their control, such as if the District Attorney’s office is unwilling to prosecute, the survivor is unwilling to move forward or the alleged offender is part of another criminal case.

Last week, Austin Police Chief Brian Manley also ordered a third-party audit of sexual assault investigations after receiving the state auditor's report. It’s unclear right now how much overlap exists between the calls for an outside investigation.

In November, reporters with ProPublica, Newsy and the Center for Investigative Reporting revealed some police departments across the country commonly misuse exceptional clearance to close rape cases without arrest, despite experts saying the method should be used sparingly. They found that 2 out of 3 rape cases in Austin in 2016 were exceptionally cleared.

Council Member Alter said this resolution comes after years of reported issues with sexual assault cases in the city. In 2016, the DNA lab run by the police department shut down after a state audit found mold on some DNA samples. Until recently, a backlog of untested rape kits sat in that same lab for decades.

In June, three women sued the City of Austin and Travis County, alleging that their sexual assault cases were not handled correctly because of their gender. Since then, five more women have joined the case.

“Council, the chief, the city manager – we all recognize that we are at a turning point in our community and that we recognize that there’s a problem that we have an opportunity to address,” Alter said. “The first step in addressing a problem is admitting it, and I think we have common understanding there.”

Mayor Steve Adler and Council members Greg Casar, Ann Kitchen and Delia Garza co-sponsored the resolution. City Council will vote on it at its meeting next Thursday.

Nadia Hamdan is a local news anchor and host for NPR's "Morning Edition" on KUT.
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