The City of Austin will pay a Washington, D.C.-based research firm up to $800,000 to evaluate how Austin police officers investigate sexual assault cases. Last year, a string of reports revealed that the Austin Police Department had misclassified rape cases, raising questions about the integrity of these investigations.
Council originally approved the audit in January, but needed to vote Thursday on directing the funds to a specific firm.
"It is our ultimate goal to create an evaluation that brings forward the best, most transparent process and product to our community and to create a better system for survivors," Council Member Alison Alter said.
The review is expected to take 18 months, meaning it could be ready in spring of 2021. Council has asked for a six-month update.
The Police Executive Research Forum will complete the audit with the Women’s Law Project in Philadelphia and the Wellesley Centers for Women in Wellesley, Mass. Council has asked researchers to consider sexual assault cases from the past seven years, examining at least 200 cases or half of the cases each year – whichever number is greater. Investigators will track incidents from when they were first reported to police to when they were closed by APD or handed off to the District Attorney's office for prosecution.
Journalists with ProPublica, Newsy and the Center for Investigative Reporting revealed last year that local police departments were overusing what’s called “exceptional clearance” to close rape cases. In 2016, Austin police exceptionally cleared two out of three rape cases. In these cases, police know the identity of a suspect accused of rape but are unable to arrest that person because of reasons outside their control.
APD Chief Brian Manley responded by calling for a state audit. Researchers found detectives wrongly cleared without arrest nearly a third of rape cases over a three-month period in 2017.
Advocates for sexual assault survivors applauded the contract Thursday.
"We have our work cut out for us from backlogs to mishandling of rape kits to misclassifying cases, there’s a lot here and it's important that we begin again to understand the problem before we look for solutions," said Amanda Lewis, who serves on the city's Commission for Women.
The city’s contract will be limited to APD, since the city does not have jurisdiction over the Travis County District Attorney’s Office, which oversees the prosecution of sexual assault cases. The DA’s Office is currently facing two lawsuits over its handling of these cases.