When Austin Police Chief Brian Manley announced last week that state auditors had found problems with how police classify rape cases, some people were not shocked by the news.
“It wasn’t a huge surprise to us,” said Kristen Lenau, who co-founded the Survivor Justice Project, an organization made up of advocates and survivors of sexual assault. “I think what’s most surprising is that it’s just another step in like a series of failures around sexual assault in Austin.”
The Texas Department of Public Safety found that APD wrongly classified roughly a third of all cleared rape cases from three months in 2017. A full report is expected by mid-January. In response, Manley has called for officers to be retrained on case classification.
But advocates for sexual assault survivors say that’s like putting out a kitchen fire – and ignoring the wildfire outside.
“This issue of case clearances really comes down to how they’re coding the cases as they close them out,” Lenau said. "Ultimately for us, as advocates, it doesn’t really get at the quality of the investigation, and it doesn’t get at the fact that the cases are not being solved or why they’re not being solved.”
The APD did not respond to a question about whether it plans to do more than retraining.
In November, journalists with ProPublica, Newsy and the Center for Investigative Reporting reported that police departments were frequently using a federal classification to clear rape cases despite experts saying the method should be used sparingly.
Reporters found that 2 out of 3 cleared rape cases in Austin in 2016 were “exceptionally cleared” – meaning the department had identified the alleged offender but couldn’t arrest this person for a number of reasons, such as the prosecutor choosing not to bring a case.
A former sergeant interviewed for the story said bosses asked her to change the codes on cases, so cases labeled suspended could instead be exceptionally cleared – thereby inflating the department’s clearance rate.
“For us, this is the tip of the iceberg,” Ana DeFrates, a member of the city’s Commission for Women, said, referring to the ProPublica report.
The story came after years of reported issues with sexual assault cases in the city. In 2016, the DNA lab run by APD shut down after a state audit. Mold was found on some DNA samples, including at least one rape kit. Until recently, some rape evidence kits sat for decades without being tested. In June, three women sued several local law enforcement agencies, claiming their sexual assault cases had been mishandled.
“Why is it that so few sexual assaults are prosecuted in our community?” DeFrates said. "My colleagues and the survivors we work with look at this as a public health issue, like this is frankly dangerous – literally dangerous for people in our communities."
The lawsuit filed this summer argues that fewer than 10 sexual assault cases are prosecuted each year in Travis County. Travis County District Attorney Margaret Moore called that number "wholly unfounded."
According to Moore, in 2017, for instance, 81 cases of sexual assault were brought to court in Travis County. This number includes cases that were dismissed or eventually resulted in other offenses, such as domestic violence.
"The allegation that the Travis County District Attorney’s Office is unwilling to prosecute sexual assault cases is absolutely false," she said in an email.
Amanda Lewis, a social worker and co-founder of the Survivor Justice Project, said while APD’s retraining efforts are good, it leaves her with many questions about the other steps in the process.
“That training is not going to help us understand what else is going on with investigations and prosecution,” Lewis said.
DeFrates said the result is a loss of trust in local law enforcement to handle cases that notoriously go unreported – according to one national nonprofit, 3 out of 4 sexual assaults are not reported to police.
“Several of the survivors we organize with had their own sexual assaults exceptionally cleared. This has been gut wrenching to see for them,” DeFrates said. “They tell us that it’s like a slap in the face.”
Clarification: This story has been updated to make clear that the 81 cases cited by Moore include dismissals and cases that were categorized as other offenses.