The Austin City Council last month approved an independent review of how the police department handles sexual assault cases. Mayor Steve Adler, who voted in favor of the review, says he has confidence in Police Chief Brian Manley and the work of the department. But, Adler says, he wants to get at the core of what he calls the "greatest challenges" facing the department in completing sexual assault investigations.
The way the Austin Police Department conducts – and closes – some sexual assault investigations came under scrutiny after national news reports showed Austin had a high number of "exceptionally cleared" cases. Those are cases that are cleared even when no arrest has been made.
"The path between the sexual assault all the way to taking a perpetrator and putting him behind bars is a long path," Adler said. "And those numbers [of perpetrators that are being taken off the streets] diminish along that path. But there are lots of places along that path."
He talked with KUT recently about what he hopes the investigation will reveal about APD.
This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:
Mayor Adler: We need to look at what tools they need that they're not being given, how they're being overtasked. We need to make sure we're using best practices and right procedures. Yes, I have confidence; but there's still opportunity for us to do better.
KUT: Are there other things that you would either like the department to do or that maybe other cities do in investigating sexual assault cases? Anything else that you think needs to be added?
Adler: That's the reason why we're doing this study: to be able to answer exactly those questions. What we know – bottom line – is that we have a large number (and any number would be large) of sexual assaults that are happening and then too small a number of perpetrators that are being taken off the streets.
Now, the path between the sexual assault all the way to taking a perpetrator and putting him behind bars is a long path. And those numbers diminish along that path. How do we treat victims when they come forward? Is the experience one where a victim wants to stay engaged and continue to prosecute? How are we investigating? How many resources? How much triage are public safety officials having to do because they can't handle all the complaints that are coming to them?
KUT: What do you think about the way Chief Manley has handled this entire situation?
Adler: I have a lot of respect for Chief Manley. I know his heart. I know his work ethic. I know the time he's out in the community with victims and with prosecutors – with everybody in this community. There was a classification that has been the source of a lot of the angst where we have some cases that are "exceptionally cleared." I think that the chief has seen that his department has misclassified some of those cases. But I'm not sure that the misclassification is the source of our greatest challenge. I don't know that that's really the material issue. That's why we need to do this this study.
KUT: This came to light because some national news organizations – Newsy and ProPublica - started looking into numbers in several cities. Would we be having this discussion, though, if they hadn't done that?
Adler: I think the national reporting was certainly helpful because the more people that are aware of the challenge, the more it marshals attention and community will. But I was already meeting in my office with sexual assault advocates and stakeholders in our community. Even prior to the airing of that piece, the lawsuit that was filed in the city was something that occurred and was happening.
KUT: Austin has a history – we had a backlog of rape evidence kits that had not been examined. That backlog has been cleared; now there's more work to do with those. You mentioned the lawsuit. We have this situation – our review of how the police department handles sexual assault investigations. What kind of picture does this paint of Austin in terms of how our city handles sexual assault?
Adler: One thing it tells us is that we're a big city, and we're going to have the challenges that big cities have. If we were the only city in the country that had a backlog of testing of rape kits, that would mean a different thing to me. ... If our community didn't step forward in terms of appropriating funding to fix that – that would also say something about us.
But Austin did step forward and appropriated money out of our budget in ways that most cities did not. The challenges that we're dealing with here are not unique to Austin. How we deal with those challenges, and how we respond to them, I think is how we define who we are.