UTPD will officially hire a female detective specializing in sexual assault investigations by April, according to Chief David Carter.
Carter said the hire will be a current UTPD officer and will be sent to training along with a sergeant to learn more about sexual assault investigations and working with survivors.
“The vast majority of the sexual assault reports that come into the police involve female victims,” Carter said. “It’s important for a victim to trust the police.”
The detective will also work with survivors to help them navigate the criminal justice system, which can emotionally strain survivors, Carter said.
“There needs to be a foundation in terms of relationships,” Carter said. “We want our victims to feel comfortable in working with the prosecutor’s office and a variety of other folks.”
The creation of the new position ties into the “Blueprint” report released Feb. 29, which seeks to guide police officers at UT System institutions toward implementing “victim-centered” and “trauma-informed” approaches when responding to sexual assault incidents. According to the report, research shows that more training and experience investigating sexual assault reduces the likelihood of belief in false stereotypes or myths about sexual assault.
The report includes summaries of current research and laws surrounding sexual assault, as well as specific ways for police officers to respond to sexual assault appropriately. Strategies such as “Don’t ask doubting or blaming questions” and “Inform victims of their options — criminal, civil, and student conduct process” are included as a strategy to increase the number of reports of sexual assault.
“We know that sexual assault is significantly underreported,” said Michael Heidingsfield, UT System chief of police. “We would expect the reports to rise incrementally, not because there’s a greater incidence of offending, but because hopefully over the long term, those who have been victimized will have a greater sense of trust and confidence in the police.”
Scrutiny of the institutional handling of sexual assault has heightened, especially as the Department of Education told institutions that the improper handling of sexual assault may violate Title IX regulations, which protect students against sex discrimination.
Carter said UTPD started implementing techniques mentioned in the “Blueprint” before it was released, and there would not be many structural changes as a result of the “Blueprint.”
“The level of frequency of reporting [to the police] is kind of small,” Carter said. “What we can do is look at the cases we have done, and my expectation is that the new sexual assault experts will look at those and say ‘Oh, here’s an opportunity. Moving forward, we need to make sure we don’t miss this or that.’”
Police officers are some of the first responders to these incidents, so ensuring they are well trained is vital, according to the report.
“Providing that rapport — helping to validate them during a time that’s extremely difficult — can be very helpful and can help the survivor start on a road to recovery,” “Blueprint” project director Caitlin Sulley said. “It also helps to foster trust in criminal justice response so that other people may come forward and also report, thus improving the safety of the community and letting other survivors know that they will be believed.”