Council Calls for Audit of APD Rape Cases
Start-to-finish review responds to growing concern from advocates, survivors
Days after the City Council's unanimous call for a comprehensive review of the Austin Police Department's handling of sexual assault cases, Police Chief Brian Manley confirmed that APD agrees with most of the findings in the audit already completed by the Texas Department of Public Safety on how APD uses federal clearance codes to close rape cases. Manley invited that DPS review after Austin Police received national backlash last year for too frequently closing cases without arresting subjects; in a letter to DPS and the city's Public Safety Commission, Manley said that of the 65 cases DPS said were misclassified, APD concurred with 57.
One issue, Manley said, is the difference between state and federal definitions of sexual assault – specifically in cases involving two minors. APD also disagreed with DPS's classification of nine cases as "unfounded," in which the survivors recanted; going forward, Manley said, APD will review the "totality of the circumstances" in such cases to determine it they should be suspended rather than closed. (Either way, those cases can be reopened.)
Manley's update came after Council adopted a resolution on Thursday, Jan. 31; brought forward by CM Alison Alter and co-sponsored by Greg Casar, Ann Kitchen, Mayor Pro Tem Delia Garza, and Mayor Steve Adler, the measure directs the city to hire a nationally recognized, independent entity – free of "any conflict of interests" – to review APD's handling of reported rapes. That evaluation will look back and report on the department's processing and investigation of sexual assault cases, along with a set of recommendations to move forward. Auditors will also look into why a "number of reported cases" are not prosecuted within the criminal justice system. Before the vote was taken, Adler said both Travis County District Attorney Margaret Moore and Manley had expressed their support of the resolution.
As directed, the yet-to-be-chosen auditor will review at least 50% of the sexual assault cases – or 200, whichever number is greater – from each of the past seven years. The selected cases must cover a range of "victim types" and include ones that did and did not move forward with prosecution. (Cases still being investigated or pending prosecution are excluded.) Survivors who reported their rapes to APD, as well as current and former sworn officers, and local "subject matter experts" – presumably advocates – will be interviewed. Areas up for review include the department's adherence to state and federal laws; policies and practices to ensure there's no bias based on the victim's gender, race, disability, or LGBTQ status; the Sex Crimes Unit's record-keeping to ensure it's in accordance with national best practices, and officers' treatment of victims under the influence of drugs or alcohol.
APD's documentation of policies regarding issuing warrants and filing cases in sexual assault reports will be looked at for "any issues." The audit will also assess whether APD is complying with national best practices, and the department's accuracy of case clearance decisions. Finally, the resolution calls for a look at the "appropriateness of current staffing, resources, and training provided," as well as the budget for the Sex Crimes Unit in relation to other APD units.
Alter's resolution applauds APD for steps already taken, but concludes: "Yet the root causes of above-average rates of exceptional clearance, the lack of complete testing of some rape kits, [and] low rates of reporting and prosecution may not be revealed" from the "limited review by a peer institution," referring to DPS. Alter thanked the many speakers and her colleagues for their support and called the resolution the next step, "not the end of our journey. We will be judged not by the resolution but the actions after we get results back."