Council Member Alter, Advocates Optimistic on APD Review

The city gears up for the third-party evaluation of the department's handling of sexual assault cases

Alison Alter (Photo by John Anderson)

With the contract between the city of Austin and the Police Executive Research Forum signed and the non-disclosure agreements lifted, more is coming to light about the soon-to-begin third-party evaluation of the Austin Police Depart­ment's handling of sexual assault cases.

The project, originally expected to take 18 months, has been extended, it was revealed at Monday's (Oct. 7) Public Safety Commission meeting, with a final report expected by February 2022. The decision, according to Commissioner Rebecca Bernhardt – who reviewed the contract with several other members of the PSC and the Commission for Women – has to do with the project's large scope of work. PERF, along with its subcontractors Women's Law Project and the Wellesley Centers for Women, will review at least 50% of all sexual assault cases filed in each of the past seven years, from open to when it was closed – either by APD or when handed over to the Travis County District Attorney's Office for prosecution.

But the extension doesn't mean improvements won't be made along the way. Council Member Alison Alter, who carried January's resolution calling for the evaluation, told the Chronicle that, as the contractors identify policy or procedural changes worthy of adoption, "those will be communicated and there will be opportunities for APD to change what they're doing well before we get to the end of the investigation." If APD chooses to not follow the recommendations, Council will be notified.

The evaluation, which Alter said they're purposefully not calling an audit "because we're not trying to approach this as a 'gotcha' moment," received unanimous Council support, after APD appeared in national news last November regarding its overuse of closing rape cases "exceptionally" without ever making an arrest. The reports spurred APD to request a review of their exceptionally cleared cases by the Texas Department of Public Safety that soon identified that less than a third had been closed correctly. This was just the latest in APD's ongoing saga of what has appeared to be mishandling and neglect of these cases, including a backlog of untested rape kits that ballooned to 4,000 after the department's DNA lab shut down in summer of 2016. For its part, APD Chief Brian Manley called PERF a "leader in the professionalization of American policing" and told the Chronicle: "We look forward to their work on this project."

With this review, Alter believes Austin is moving in the right direction, but said there's a lot of work to be done: "There hasn't been a lot of prosecutions, there's been a lot of folks who haven't had their DNA looked at, and with only 10% [of rape survivors] reporting, we have a lot to do to put confidence back in the system. ... This is part of that process, but is not something we're going to change overnight and it's ultimately what comes out of it that we'll be judged by, not the fact that we simply launched this process."

But both Alter and Amanda Lewis of the Survivor Justice Project, who sits on the Commission for Women and also reviewed the contract, feel confident in the PERF team. "They're very law-enforcement focused, but that's not necessarily a bad thing," explained Lewis, who noted that PERF and APD have worked together in the past. While the addition of subcontractor Women's Law Project, which implemented what is now considered a national best practice for sexual assault case review at the Philadelphia Police Department over a decade ago, sparked the most excitement, Wellesley, according to Lewis, was brought on to support the evaluation's racial analysis. The three groups working together, said Alter, "seems to lend itself to a unique combination of skills. If you had taken any one of the three contractors involved [individually], they probably wouldn't have had the skill set."

Lewis also stressed the contract's emphasis on transparency – a lack of which has intensified concerns about APD over the years. "We understand that some of [the review] has to be private, but we want it to be really community transparent." Lewis also said the contract was written in such a way as to be modified as new information is discovered, because "a good evaluation requires that we don't have all the details up front."

What happens here could become a model for other cities in the future. Though Alter noted that Council can only directly address APD and not prosecution rates, which fall under the D.A.'s purview, she's hopeful that state legislation carried by Rep. Donna Howard, D-Austin, in 2019 will help hold such entities accountable. The neglect of sexual assault cases (and survivors) is a "problem across the country, but how we respond is something that's under our control," said Alter. "My hope is that we're responding in a way that allows us to not just fix the system here, but to be leaders for the rest of the country."

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Sexual Assault, Police Executive Research Forum, APD Sexual Assault Audit, Austin Police Department, Public Safety Commission, Rebecca Bernhardt, Commission for Women, Alison Alter, Austin City Council, Women's Law Project, Wellesley Centers for Women, Texas Department of Safety, Brian Manley, Amanda Lewis, APD DNA Lab, Donna Howard, Travis County District Attorney's Office, Survivor Justice Project

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