Three gray lounge chairs surround a small table. There is a weighted blanket in a basket by the window, another blanket draped across one of the chairs. Most of the furniture is from home decor retailer West Elm.
This room is where survivors of sexual assault and domestic violence will sit with members of the Austin Police Department and recount what happened to them. With the help of a nonprofit, APD spent $25,000 to renovate six interview rooms in its sexual assault division.
“As you would expect in many police facilities, the interview rooms are often times what you might see on TV or in the movies and all of that,” Police Chief Brian Manley said at a press conference Monday. “They’re just rather bland rooms and they’re meant for the purpose of just conducting an interview.”
According to a City Council staffer, survivors had described these interview rooms as plain and uncomfortable; they've said they could hear crime victims being interviewed in neighboring rooms. In January, two City Council members and the mayor visited the rooms APD was using and confirmed what they’d heard.
Fort Worth-based Project Beloved helped APD with the renovations; this included repainting walls, buying new furniture and installing white noise machines controlled by a touchscreen in the hallway.
“You have to think about what a victim is being asked to do in that room,” said Tracy Matheson, who founded Project Beloved after her daughter was murdered in 2017. “It’s to share a story with details that are embarrassing and most surely traumatic and painful.”
Matheson called the new rooms "soft" interview rooms.
“We went with soft, comfortable fabrics,” she said. “Lighting was important to us. We wanted to make it so you didn’t have to have overhead lights on if necessary. So, we included lamps in the room to make it more of a living room setting.”
The past year has been one of intense scrutiny for APD over how it investigates sexual assault cases. National outlets revealed last year that Austin police were closing the majority of rape cases without making an arrest; a state audit found similar problems. APD responded by hiring more detectives and retraining officers.
“We’ve taken a lot of steps to improve how we’re approaching these investigations in our community and this is the next step,” Manley said.
In September, City Council members hired a third-party firm to audit how APD handles sexual assault investigations. That evaluation is not expected until 2022.