The Austin Police Department will meet this month with an external evaluator to perform an audit of the department’s sexual assault cases over the past seven years.
Austin City Council approved up to $1 million Sept. 19 to pay the Police Executive Research Forum, a Washington, D.C.-based police research and policy nonprofit, to perform the evaluation along with the Women’s Law Project in Philadelphia and the Wellesley Centers for Women in Wellesley, Massachussetts.
In January, the Texas Department of Public Safety found that APD incorrectly classified about a third of sexual assault cases from January, November and December 2017 as exceptionally cleared, according to the DPS audit. Cases can be classified as exceptionally cleared when police know who to arrest but cannot pursue it because of elements outside of their control, such as the offender’s death or the victim’s refusal to cooperate, according to the FBI’s uniform crime reporting guidelines.
City Council unanimously passed a resolution Jan. 31 introduced by council member Alison Alter to fund an in-depth external evaluation of how APD investigates sexual assault cases and why a large number of reported cases are not prosecuted.
“When I began to delve deeper into the numbers and how few cases were being brought to trial and heard the stories from survivors about how their cases were being handled or not handled through the process, it seemed to me that we had a responsibility to change the way the system was functioning,” Alter said. “It’s hard not to look at what’s going on and not suspect a gender bias to how resources are being allocated, to how victims are being treated.”
Alter said the forum will provide City Council with a midterm report and recommendations at the end of the estimated 18-month evaluation in 2021, which she hopes will include an internal review process for APD to adopt in the future.
APD assistant chief Jennifer Stephenson said APD will cooperate fully with the three organizations to provide as much information as legally possible.
“We welcome an outsider to come in and assist us and recognize what those practice of policy improvements may look like,” Stephenson said. “This is also important to the survivors of sexual assault and our community.”
Stephenson said APD did not have input in the selection process of the external evaluator, but this is not the first time the forum has worked with the department. The forum completed a 2012 Patrol Utilization Study to determine the department’s staffing needs.
APD, the city of Austin and Travis County are defendants in a federal class action lawsuit filed in June 2018 by eight plaintiffs, including UT alumna Marina Garrett. The women said the defendants violated their rights and discriminated on the basis of gender while handling their sexual assault cases, according to the lawsuit.
Biochemistry junior Aditi Kulkarni said the external audit is necessary because she would feel unsafe in Austin if her sexual assault case was misclassified.
“A lot of our governmental agencies, especially those that are supposed to protect us, tend to fail over and over again,” Kulkari said. “That is horrible, especially if you were assaulted and your case was dropped. I wouldn’t be able to feel safe in the city ever again, especially if … that much neglect was put into my case.”