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Crime & Justice

Austin spends nearly $1 million to settle lawsuits alleging it mishandled sexual assault cases

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Gabriel C. Pérez
/
KUT

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The City of Austin is settling two lawsuits alleging it violated the rights of sexual assault survivors by mishandling the investigation of their cases.

The city’s settlement amounts to $825,000, which will be split among 15 plaintiffs, and $50,000 for the plaintiffs’ lawyers. The city will also issue a formal apology and has either already made or committed to making various policy changes, including additional training for members of its Sex Crimes Unit and the opening of a cold case division to investigate older assaults.

With a unanimous vote at their meeting Thursday, Austin City Council members finalized the settlement. Plaintiffs filed a similar lawsuit against Travis County for its alleged failure to prosecute sexual assault cases, and this summer the county settled for $580,000.

“No one should experience sexual assault. Let’s start right there,” Mayor Pro Tem Alison Alter said before the vote. “No one should experience sexual assault and then have to spend years and years advocating to be believed, to be heard. We must fix the system that we have.”

In 2018, three plaintiffs filed a federal lawsuit alleging that the City of Austin, Travis County, the Austin Police Department and the Travis County District Attorney’s Office inadequately investigated their sexual assault cases. Plaintiffs argued that various failures, including APD’s backlog of untested DNA kits, violated their rights as women and as sexual assault survivors.

A judge eventually dismissed that original case, but lawyers appealed and then filed a second lawsuit with additional plaintiffs in state court.

The City of Austin settled both lawsuits Thursday.

“I wasn’t sleeping, I wasn’t eating, I wasn’t going to class," Marina Garrett, a sexual assault survivor and one of the plaintiffs, told council members at their meeting Thursday. "I would sit in my room, all night, staring at the door waiting for my rapist to come find me again. To rape me again or to even kill me."

“I came to you all, asking for help," Garrett said. "I gave up my early 20s to do what you all were elected to do. You were the leaders in my city, but instead I had to lead.”

APD’s failures when it comes to the handling of sexual assault cases have been well-documented in the past several years.

In 2019, state auditors concluded that APD had misclassified about a third of rape cases the department handled over a three-month period. Auditors found police had misused “exceptional clearance,” which is when the department closes a case after having identified a suspect but is unable to arrest that person for reasons outside of its control. Three years before, APD closed its crime lab after state auditors took issue with how evidence was being handled.

A staff attorney for the City of Austin said Thursday APD Chief Joseph Chacon was willing to have a sit-down meeting with any of the plaintiffs in the settled cases. In a statement, Chacon said his department is making changes to “better protect” sexual assault survivors.

“We are dedicated to prioritizing being victim-centered in our approach to investigations and victim services,” Chacon said. “This settlement highlights the methods we’ve updated to better serve victims of sexual assault.”

Mary Ruth Reyes, the lead plaintiff in the federal case who went by the pseudonym Amy Smith, spoke at the council meeting Thursday.

“It has taken me a minute to find my voice, and when I say a minute, in fact, it’s taken me more than a decade of insurmountable anguish, dedication, stamina and an unimaginable amount of tears,” Reyes, who spoke about being kidnapped and raped, said. “I am only one of many where the City of Austin failed me repeatedly — emotionally, systemically and traumatically.”

In a statement, the City of Austin said it would be issuing an apology to the plaintiffs, but as of the vote Thursday had not released a copy of that apology.

The city is still awaiting the results of a third-party audit of how APD handles sexual assault investigations; the release of the final report has been delayed, and now city staff expects it will be done this May.

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