The bright yellow bandannas from the #WeBelieve campaign that were wrapped around Austin City Council members’ mic stands stood out as an uncommon gesture of support Thursday as the Council listened to the emotional pleas of rape survivors to make their stories of injustice heard.
In a unanimous vote of approval, the City Council passed a resolution to evaluate the Austin Police Department’s processing and investigating of reported sexual assaults. The city manager now has six months to find a third-party agency to perform the evaluation.
Council member Alison Alter, who introduced the resolution, said Thursday night’s vote was a step in the right direction toward addressing sexual assault in Austin.
“People came out and they recognized sexual assault is a problem in our community,” Alter said. “It’s happening disproportionately to women, and there’s a feeling in the system that we are not responding appropriately to bring justice and healing.”
APD chief Brian Manley addressed an audit from the Texas Department of Public Safety on Dec. 31. The audit found that out of the 95 rape cases reported to APD from January, November and December 2017, 30 were incorrectly classified as “exceptionally cleared.”
A case is exceptionally cleared when law enforcement knows the identity and location of a suspect and has probable cause, but cannot make the arrest. Reasons for exceptional clearance include a suspect’s death or a victim’s refusal to prosecute, according to the National Incident-Based Reporting System.
Jennifer Ecklund, an attorney at Thompson & Knight, is representing former and current UT students in a lawsuit against the Travis County District Attorney’s office and APD, claiming they faced gender-based discrimination in the handling of their sexual assault cases.
“For my clients who have spoken at City Council before and again (Thursday) night...(it’s) a measure of hope for their voices to be heard after so many years,” Ecklund said. “I think (Thursday) night they finally felt heard.”
Manley said he looks forward to working with the City Council and the community, and that the evaluation aligns with what leaders of the department wanted.
“This review will allow us to take a holistic review of how we are handling sexual assault cases in our community so that we’re all working towards what we all want, and that is justice,” Manley said.
Alter did not specify when the evaluation by the selected agency would be completed, as it depends on the final contract with the independent agency.