Austin apologizes for missteps, but sexual assault survivors say the work isn't done
Survivors say work to repair the system following the city's mishandling of their sexual assault cases shouldn't stop with a public apology.
Changes made in the years since will not impact survivors who sued the city in 2018, but many told KUT News their fight was about how the system serves people moving forward.
"It was really about standing up and ensuring that the system victims meet — now and in the future — can much better serve them, serve them not just as victims but hopefully provide them some means of justice," Hanna Senko, one of 15 plaintiffs, said after the public apology Tuesday.
The apology was part of a nearly $1 million settlement of the lawsuit two years ago. Survivors each also received a private apology from Austin Police leaders last year.
Senko said the public apology was one of the most important parts of the settlement, not just for her but for many other survivors.
“I am really grateful we got to the place we did this week,” Senko told KUT News. “The journey has certainly been a long one. And I'm proud we can look back and see what we’ve been able to accomplish.”
Marina Garrett, another survivor and plaintiff in the lawsuit, said the public apology was a longtime coming.
"We shouldn't have had to do this work," she said. " It shouldn't have been up to us. ... But I am glad we got here and have made changes to protect others in the future."
A public apology
Interim Assistant City Manager Bruce Mills, who oversees public safety, offered the apology on behalf of the city at a news conference Tuesday.
“We can all agree the cases that survivors were involved in were not handled appropriately and do not reflect the values of our organization,” said Mills, who was joined by interim Police Chief Robin Henderson and several current and former City Council members, including Congressman Greg Casar.
Henderson offered similar sentiments.
“To all the survivors, I would like to apologize for how your cases were mishandled, and to the hurt and revictimization that you have endured as result of these missteps,” Henderson said. “Thank you for your courage and persistence to improve the outcome for all survivors. Hear me when I say I and all members of APD are committed to making sure no other survivors go through this or something similar in the future.”
Lawsuit for change
In 2018, three plaintiffs filed a lawsuit alleging that the City of Austin, Travis County, the Austin Police Department and the Travis County District Attorney’s Office did not adequately investigate their sexual assault cases. They pointed to multiple failures, including a backlog of untested DNA kits, that violated their rights. These kits are used to collect and preserve DNA evidence when there's a sexual assault allegation.
That case was dismissed, but lawyers appealed and filed a second lawsuit with additional plaintiffs in state court. The city settled both lawsuits in 2022. Since then, Austin has caught up on the backlog of cases. Several changes have also been made across the city and county to improve the system.
Henderson said that has included adding more funding to APD’s sex crimes unit, including for counseling services. Travis County District Attorney Garza José Garza told KUT his office has also implemented quite a few changes, such as not settling a case without first talking with the victim of the crime.
“We’ve made changes to our policies that are common sense but necessary,” Garza said.
A step backward?
While the city has made changes in the last several years to improve the system, that work felt undermined this week with the news that former Police Chief Art Acevedo would come back to the city in a newly created position to oversee policing.
Acevedo was chief of police in 2016 when many of these failures came to light and was named in the lawsuit over the mishandling of these cases. He has since gone on to lead police in Houston, Miami and Colorado.
Senko and Garrett, along with many other sexual assault survivors, called his return a slap in the face.
"It felt like we were moving backward and maybe all of these changes and attitudes we’ve seen change were not actually sincere and a little disingenuous," Garrett told KUT. "But I think the immediate support from people like Council Member [Alison] Alter and other community members that showed up and pushed back with us helped calm those nerves."
Just minutes before the apology was issued Tuesday, Acevedo announced he was turning down the job.
“While I continue to admire and support these leaders of the Austin community, it is clear that this newly created position has become a distraction from the critical work ahead for our city," Acevedo said in a post on X, formerly known as Twitter.
Senko said she was happy to see he chose to step back. Garrett agreed but said she felt Acevedo's statement was disrespectful.
"To say that it's because of power struggles that we can't make positive change," Garrett said. "The survivors in this lawsuit made more positive changes than he ever has and to say you shouldn't have any blame that is very disrespectful to say to those of us who have fought for years."
Council Member Alter said she is now focused on moving forward and ensuring the changes the city has made around sexual assault are made.
“This is how we ensure we don't go back,” Alter said. “We stand firm and committed to making this change. We set out on this path, and we are not going to let these women who stood up down. We are not going to let other people who might experience violence down.”