The Austin Police Department has ordered a third-party audit of sexual assault investigations after state auditors found it misclassified certain rape cases.
"This review will look from the beginning to the end," Austin Police Chief Brian Manley said at a news conference Wednesday. "From the moment we receive the 911 call, the officer's response to that call, all the way through the investigation."
The Texas Department of Public Safety found APD failed to meet federal criteria for clearing a rape case without arresting someone in nearly a third of cases reviewed during three months in 2017. While initial results from the audit were released New Year’s Eve, the police department did not receive the full audit until Friday.
“We really want to applaud the attention that Chief Manley paid to survivors,” said Juliana Gonzalez, senior director of sexual assault services at the SAFE Alliance. “We’re encouraged that Chief Manley immediately came forward and reacted to respond to this issue.”
Manley stressed that the DPS audit was about how the department codes rape cases. It does not reflect the “adequacy, thoroughness, completeness” of investigations, he said.
But one advocate for sexual assault survivors said she still has questions about investigations.
“The DPS report is confirmation that there is something not right with investigations and that it’s leading to systemic issues with the process of reporting sexual assault,” said Amanda Lewis, who co-founded the Survivor Justice Project. “I think [the DPS audit] does tell us ... maybe that investigations need to be looked at deeper.”
In its report, DPS stated the department may need to better enforce the policies it uses to clear rape cases. It asked APD to respond with a plan to address "deficiencies" identified in the report by Feb. 22.
Auditors reviewed 95 rape cases the department considered “exceptionally cleared” in January, November and December 2017. A case is exceptionally cleared after police have identified a suspect but cannot arrest that person because of reasons outside their office – such as, the District Attorney’s office is unwilling to prosecute, the survivor is unwilling to move forward or the alleged offender is part of another criminal case.
In deciding to exceptionally clear a case, a detective must answer yes to four questions. DPS found that in 30 of the cases it studied – nearly a third of the total – detectives did not meet these guidelines. Five cases did not meet the last criterion, which asks whether there is a reason outside police control for not arresting the suspect. Another five did not meet any of the four requirements for exceptional clearance.
“When I saw that, that was the first thing I keyed in on," said Manley. "In the reports that I looked at we have statements from the suspect. So I’m not sure how we didn’t meet the tenant of knowing who the suspect was when we have a statement from the suspect.”
Manley said the department had put together a team to go through the DPS findings and determine whether it agrees with them. He said the team would likely finish the review and meet with state officials this week.
In addition, he said, a third-party review would look at how police handle sexual assault cases to ensure they're "employing best practices."
Mayor Steve Adler and Mayor Pro Tem Delia Garza issued a joint statement saying the audit confirms Austin has "serious issues and we need to take quick action that corrects the patterns that allowed these cases to be handled improperly."
In November, national news organizations revealed some police departments commonly use exceptional clearance to close rape cases without arrest, despite experts saying the method should be used sparingly. Reporters with ProPublica, Newsy and Reveal from the Center for Investigative Reporting found that 2 out of 3 rape cases cleared in Austin in 2016 were exceptionally cleared.
Reporters quoted a former sergeant who said bosses asked her to change a case’s coding, so cases labeled suspended could instead be exceptionally cleared – thereby inflating the department’s clearance rate. Manley said he had a “difference of opinions” over the right way to clear cases.
At the news conference, Manley said APD began retraining supervisors on clearance codes two weeks ago, and supervisors, in turn, were training their detectives. He said the department was also adding a supervisor to the sex crimes unit.
Speaking directly to rape survivors, Manley said, "We are committed to you, to seeking justice for you."
Advocates for survivors of sexual assault argue that the department’s inability to accurately code these cases is a sign of faults throughout the system – starting when someone reports a sexual assault to when it is prosecuted or dismissed.
APD shuttered its DNA lab in 2016 after state auditors found issues with how the evidence was being handled; in one instance, a fridge full of samples remained broken for six days. Until recently, it took decades to have some rape evidence kits tested. Then last summer three women sued several local law enforcement agencies, including the current and former district attorneys, claiming their sexual assault cases had been mishandled.