APD Unveils New Interview Rooms For Survivors of Sexual Assault and Domestic Violence
The next step in improving sexual assault investigations in Austin?
By Sarah Marloff,
6:15PM, Mon. Nov. 4, 2019
The Austin Police Department’s Sex Crimes and Domestic Violence units unveiled six new interview rooms redesigned with survivors of sexual assault, domestic violence, and their children in mind.
In use now, the “soft interview rooms,” located far out on Ed Bluestein Blvd. where those units are housed, were designed by Project Beloved, a Fort Worth-based nonprofit that works to empower survivors and improve prosecution rates.
Tracy Matheson, who founded Project Beloved after her daughter Molly Jane was raped and murdered in 2017, told media on Monday, Nov. 4, that creating warm, comforting space for survivors to be interviewed by law enforcement “improves our chances of getting better evidence, and then hopefully making an arrest, and then hopefully prosecuting and getting a conviction. Because the truth is, nationally we don’t do a very good job in arresting and prosecuting those who commit sexual violence.”
Low rates of both arrest and prosecution in sexual assault cases have led to ongoing controversy in Austin and Travis County. Both APD and the Travis County District Attorney’s Office are defendants in an ongoing lawsuit filed by local sexual assault survivors that alleges systemic mishandling of cases has led to gender-based violations of constitutional rights. Travis County D.A. Margaret Moore and her First Assistant Mindy Montford (who are also defendants in another lawsuit by one of these survivors, alleging defamation), were both in attendance, and Moore spoke to her excitement that the new interview rooms will “improve” the work currently being done by both APD and her office.
For APD’s part, Police Chief Brian Manley addressed longstanding concerns regarding the department’s rape kit backlog, case handling procedures and clearance practices, and overworked detectives. “We’ve taken a lot of steps to improve how we’re approaching [sexual assault] cases in our community, and this is the next step,” he told reporters. According to the chief, APD earlier this year identified the interview rooms as an area of possible improvement. Describing the former spaces as “rather bland rooms,” Manley said APD learned that “the atmosphere in which we were conducting these interviews were not the most conducive for our survivors. Out of that came today.”
The six rooms now in use, according to APD victim services counselors, feature subtle white noise to cancel out sound from other rooms, upholstered chairs that can be moved (Manley pointed to this as an important update), and photographs from a young woman who was killed by her attacker. All but one of the rooms have a window letting in natural light; and throw blankets are draped over chairs or wrapped in baskets. One room – the fifth in the sequence – is the kid’s room. While child survivors are taken to a different location, according to Victim Services counselor Jeannie Tomanetz with APD's Family Violence Unit, this room is where the children of survivors can sit, read, and play while their parent is being interviewed. The room features books in both English and Spanish, a table for drawing, and slightly smaller chairs.
APD spent approximately $25,000 on five of the rooms while Project Beloved funded the furniture for the sixth room and provided free design services for all of the rooms. “I’m not naive enough to think it’s all about the room,” said Matheson. “The investigation itself needs to be trauma-informed, and I hope that by partnering with law enforcement agencies this will be a way for us to start a conversation.” APD is the third such agency to use Project Beloved in rolling out soft interview rooms.