The Austin Police Department agrees with most of the results of a state audit that found police wrongly classified a number of rape cases in 2017, according to a letter Police Chief Brian Manley sent the Texas Department of Public Safety on Monday.
State auditors reviewed 95 rape cases from 2017 that had been "exceptionally cleared." Police use that label to clear cases where they’ve identified the alleged offender and have probable cause, but cannot arrest the person for a variety of reasons. The state found that police wrongly classified nearly a third of these cases.
In his letter to the state, Manley said some of the department’s mislabeling happened because of a difference between state and federal guidelines. Under state law, for example, sex between a 19-year-old and a 15-year-old would be classified as sexual assault; under federal guidelines it would be considered statutory rape.
He wrote that many of the mislabeled rape cases could be attributed to a “[l]ack of victim cooperation,” which he said can erode the department’s grounds for an arrest.
But people who work with survivors of sexual assault have taken issue with this idea.
“Why are survivors choosing after initially going through a very challenging process to then leave the process? ... Advocates and others would probably say, and I would say this – that it’s probably because that process is not serving them,” Amanda Lewis, a social worker, said earlier last month.
Last week, the Austin City Council voted to hire an independent investigator to review how police handle sexual assault cases – from the point that someone reports an assault to when the case is either closed or handed to the District Attorney’s office for prosecution.
Manley said he will now require detectives to get approval from a supervisor before exceptionally clearing a rape case. He said police also underwent a two-hour “retraining.”
“The Austin Police Department is a learning organization and continually strives toward improving our internal processes,” he wrote in the letter.
In November, reporters with ProPublica, Newsy and the Center for Investigative Reporting revealed that police departments across the country were frequently exceptionally clearing sexual assault cases despite experts advising the classification should be used sparingly.
In that same report, a former APD sergeant said bosses asked her to change the codes on cases, so more of them would be exceptionally cleared – thereby inflating the department’s clearance rate. Manley called this a “difference of opinion.”