Sexual Assault Survivors Watch Warily as APD Touts Change

Is everything really different under the new police chief?

Hanna Senko (Photo by Jana Birchum)

Hanna Senko is fed up with mere rhetoric. "Myself and many others have been advocating for improvements within the Sex Crimes Unit at APD for years now with little to no real change," Senko told the Chron­icle recently. "I am done giving credit or believing that change will happen until I see it."

Senko is the lead plaintiff in one of the ongoing cases alleging that Austin and Travis County's mishandling of reported sexual assaults violates the constitutional rights of survivors. That pattern of misconduct, say the survivors who've brought these lawsuits, begins with the Austin Police Department, whose previous chiefs Art Acevedo and Brian Manley are named as defendants. Senko says their successor, new Chief Joseph Chacon, "has an opportunity in front of him to prove through his actions how committed he is and what priority he is placing on sex crimes in our city."

APD Chief Joseph Chacon “has an opportunity in front of him to prove through his actions how committed he is and what priority he is placing on sex crimes in our city.”– Survivors’ lawsuit plaintiff Hanna Senko

Though the survivors' lawsuits have not yet been resolved, the APD failures and scandals that play a major role in the plaintiffs' cases are matters of public record. First came the collapse of the APD-managed DNA crime lab after charges of incompetence and mishandling of evidence. Then, sexual assault evidence kits – collected by trained nurse examiners at Austin's emergency rooms from patients who'd reported having been assaulted – were allowed to languish for months or years, some growing mold, before APD managed to have the backlog cleared by outside labs, some out of state. Then, reporting by news outlets including the Chronicle uncovered APD's unusually high rate of "exceptional clearance" of rape cases – meaning they were closed without making any arrests – which led to another audit.

Most of the people who've borne the brunt of blame for these failures – Acevedo, Manley, and APD Chief of Staff Troy Gay, who's announced his retirement – are gone now. The reactions from survivors and advocates to Chacon's commitments to reform, made as he competed for and then won APD's top job, range from cautious optimism to the skepticism of Senko. All agree that the leadership circle now in place on APD headquarters' fifth floor is potentially open to change in a way that hasn't been true for a decade. But Chacon himself rose through APD's ranks and was an assistant and interim chief during the time of APD's systemic failures. Could he have done more to push for reform during that time? Some survivors and advocates say yes.

Responses and Resources

In May 2022, the Police Executive Research Forum, a broadly respected national think tank and policy shop, is slated to complete its audit of how APD handles sexual assault investigations. In June, PERF wrote a memo updating City Hall on its progress, including a list of 12 preliminary recommendations that could be acted upon immediately. Those included formalizing training for Sex Crimes Unit detectives; allowing more flexibility for victims in scheduling interviews with investigators; and supplying laptops to SCU detectives, so they can access APD's information systems when out of the office. APD officials told us that SCU is already working on or (as with the laptops) has already completed implementing some of these action items.

Beyond these and other specific recommendations from PERF, both APD and its partners, as well as survivors and their advocates, emphasized to us the importance of ongoing training and culture change. The Sex Crimes Unit needs more, better, and more current training on how to perform its core function of investigating the complex crime of sexual assault – from understanding still-evolving findings in neuroscience to questioning latent assumptions about victim behavior. That's a big action item on which to deliver results, but at least it's more defined than are the elements of "culture change" that APD requires.

Chacon saying, publicly, that he is committed to changing the way APD investigates sexual assaults is important. But so is acknowledging his department's past failures and how they have harmed survivors, which he has been less willing to do. Elevat­ing staff within APD who can create culture change is also critical; on that front, he's received mixed reviews from advocates.

So is improving relationships with community stakeholders who support and provide resources to survivors. Many are members of the Austin-Travis County Sexual Assault Response and Resource Team, a collaboration of law enforcement and human services agencies created specifically to change how the justice system responds to sexual crimes. All of the culture changes needed at APD, SARRT co-Chair Liz Donegan tells us, start with Chacon. "The chief sets the culture and fosters it," she said. "If he's committed to survivors and changing the way we respond to and investigate these crime types, then he's got to lead by example."

SAART Co-chair (and former APD Sgt.) Liz Donegan (Photo by Jana Birchum)
“It’s going to take time for us to see if he’s fully committed to changing the culture. But that starts with law enforcement fully participating at SARRT and showing an openness to approaching these crimes differently.”– SARRT co-Chair (and former APD Sgt.) Liz Donegan

That includes APD's relationship with SARRT. Former Travis County District Attorney Mar­garet Moore (also a named defendant in the survivors' lawsuits) pulled out of SARRT in 2019, claiming it was biased against her. Manley followed her lead and ended participation by sworn APD officers, although the department's Victim Services Division continued to participate. Moore is also now gone, defeated by current D.A. José Garza in the 2020 Democratic primary run-off. The third contender who forced that run-off, Erin Martinson, jumped into the D.A.'s race to elevate the voices of survivors and ensured that Moore's handling of sex crimes remained a campaign issue. Martinson now leads the D.A.'s Special Victims Unit, overseeing these cases.

Holly Bowles, a manager with the SAFE Alliance's Sexual Assault Victim Advocacy Program and a SARRT steering committee member since September, explained the importance of APD increasing its involvement with SARRT. "Survivors have the best perspective of what they need," Bowles said. "We need everyone at the table with survivors and to address the issue." Bowles said that while she's encouraged by APD returning to the SARRT table, much improvement is still needed.

Showing Up, or Dropping Out

Chacon himself has attended SARRT meetings since his appointment as chief was confirmed by City Council on Sept. 30. In an Oct. 13 letter to SARRT members, he wrote: "I would like to take a moment to acknowledge the need to rebuild trust between our organizations. I am committed to working directly with you and other stakeholder groups to establish a path forward that is in the best interest of survivors and the community."

In the letter, Chacon announced that Adrienne O'Keefe would be APD's new SARRT coordinator; she is currently in a grant-funded position coordinating APD's Sexual Assault Kit Initiative. Chacon intends to ask Council for permanent funding for O'Keefe's new role, beginning in fiscal year 2023. Earlier this year, APD Commander Kurtis Krause and Lt. Patricia Cruz, who supervise the Sex Crimes Unit, began attending SARRT meetings – marking the return of sworn leadership to the body following Manley's decision to leave.

While having more APD participants in SARRT is good, Donegan says, APD also needs to commit to greater transparency through more data sharing with other SARRT members – such as information about when and how victims and survivors drop out of the process of investigating their reported assaults. When APD's "exceptional clearance" rates made headlines, Chief Manley attributed the department's high number of closed cases without arrests to victims choosing to no longer participate. But to advocates, these dropouts are evidence of failures, by investigators or within the systems that aim to support survivors. The latter may point to the need for further solutions and some parallel culture change. Donegan, a former APD detective and sergeant who herself supervised Sex Crimes Unit investigations from 2002 to 2011, explained that more demographic data about those who drop out, while protecting their identity, could help SARRT see where gaps exist and can be filled.

"We're hopeful that Chief Chacon is open to doing things differently and is transparent about what is happening within the unit," Donegan said. "It's going to take time for us to see if he's fully committed to changing the culture, but that starts with law enforcement fully participating at SARRT and showing an openness to approaching these crimes differently."

Krause told the Chronicle that "we're trying to determine how to proceed with data sharing going forward. I believe there are things we can improve as far as providing more general data, including intake numbers" – that is, simply counting how many sexual assaults are reported, and how many suspects are apprehended, which SARRT now does not always know. Some of the data APD does currently share includes hits to the national Combined DNA Index System, which helps investigators match suspects with the DNA evidence collected in rape kits. APD provides the total number of CODIS hits to SARRT, but doesn't communicate what happens after the hit is discovered – like if an arrest was made or if a serial rapist was identified based on a DNA match in CODIS.

“I Have a Louder Voice”

Another test for Chacon will be his response to calls from advocates to elevate APD's Victim Services Division manager, currently Kachina Clark, to his executive team, as a civilian equivalent of an assistant chief. Clark, who's been at APD nearly as long as Chacon, would then have more of a voice in crafting and implementing new policies. So far, to the frustration of advocates, Chacon has declined to make that move, but he has as a compromise invited Clark to meetings with his ACs and other high-ranking department leaders as well as with APD's counsel in the city's Law Department.

Clark is deeply respected among advocates, having spent her entire career (beginning as a graduate student intern in 1998) fighting to improve how the department interacts with crime victims. "Having direct access to the chief will ensure that when issues come up, I can talk to him about them in real time," Clark told us. "I don't think those concerns were ignored with previous leadership, but sometimes things get lost going up the chain. Now, when I hear something from advocates or notice an issue on my own, I have a louder voice to make sure the issue is addressed."

APD Victim Services Manager Kachina Clark (Photo by John Anderson)
“Chacon has been supportive of me speaking up and voicing my opinion, and I’ve been at APD long enough to be comfortable in those rooms doing that.”– APD Victim Services Manager Kachina Clark

Previously, Clark would bring concerns to an AC, who would report them to the chief of staff, who would go to the chief. Now, Clark can just pick up the phone and call Chacon directly with any concerns. She will also review all policy changes before implementation, giving her an opportunity to identify changes that may unintentionally cause harm to victims. While it's early, Clark said she's excited by the changes Cha­con has made. "Chacon has been supportive of me speaking up and voicing my opinion, and I've been at APD long enough to be comfortable in those rooms doing that."

Beyond Clark, Chacon is engaged in a broader leadership shake-up. He promoted Assistant Chief Robin Henderson, a Black woman, to chief of staff, his second-in-command (she's currently "acting" while Gay, who hasn't been to work in weeks, burns through his accrued leave time). Assistant Chiefs Scott Perry and Jerry Bauzon are also newly promoted, with Bauzon filling Cha­con's role over investigations, including the Sex Crimes Unit. (He's the first Asian American to rise this high in the APD ranks.) Two more AC positions remain unfilled.

The effect of these personnel changes will take time to play out, but Chacon has also made some policy changes that could have immediate impact. New state law requires every Texas county to have a SARRT; in September, Chacon wrote to Travis County Judge Andy Brown saying he supports the local group, which has existed in various forms since 1992, becoming the "official" SARRT under the new law. County commissioners are expected to make appointments this month to meet the Dec. 1 deadline set by the law.

Implementation of another new statute has also caused some concern, as it requires that "peace officers" notify victims of their right to have a confidential advocate accompany them during interviews with investigators. Some victims may be skeptical or may wish to avoid further interactions with the police, but APD and the Law Department have reached a consensus that counselors with Victim Services can help connect survivors with confidential advocates. *

Emotional Intelligence

Training for detectives and supervisors within the Sex Crimes Unit remains a concern. In recent years, the unit has experienced high turnover, which some attribute to a lack of formal training that leaves investigators feeling unsupported. Krause, who moved over to SCU in January, said turnover is stabilizing. He noted that one of the unit's strengths is its selective hiring process, as its investigations require "a level of sensitivity and emotional intelligence." Applicants are screened by a hiring panel, which includes Victim Services participation. "Because of the process," he said, "we get detectives that are passionate about what they're doing and have the heart of an advocate."

Krause said "training is going to play a critical role in" efforts to improve how APD investigates sexual assaults. Currently, most of the training investigators receive happens on the job; there is no set number of training hours they need to complete annually, and APD internal reviews consider whether "more cost effective" options exist before approving a training request. "Training is ongoing and, as new best practices and tools become available, we will always send investigators for these updates," Krause told us via email. "Train­ing will continue throughout the duration of an investigator's SCU career."

However, "We don't have a ton of detectives, so we can't afford to have an investigator come in and not participate for a year," Krause explained. When possible, detectives and the sergeants that supervise them attend conferences to gain new investigative tools, but those opportunities have been scarce during the pandemic. (One such opportunity came last week, as investigators learned best-practice interviewing techniques through the Texas Alliance Against Sexual Assault.) Online training is an option, but less effective. Detectives maintain a "training manual" where they log different situations they encounter during investigations, which they later review with supervisors to determine what they did well and what can be improved.

Right now, the Sex Crimes Unit is fully staffed with 20 detectives, three sergeants, a lieutenant, and a commander (Krause). It handles 25 different crime types, including various kinds of lewd conduct, peeping, and revenge porn as well as the 12 different crimes broadly classified as "rape" by advocates. Data reported by APD to the FBI's National Incident Based Reporting System indicated there were 505 rape offenses reported to law enforcement in Austin in 2020, which would pencil out to two cases per month for each of the 20 detectives; data provided by Krause indicates the SCU's caseload through the end of October has maintained this pace. Staff within the unit range in age from 37 to 59; APD could not tell us how much investigative experience each detective has, but Krause said that their average tenure with the unit is 1¼ years. The most experienced, Lt. Cruz, has 3½ years of service in SCU.

Krause, Chacon, and Clark all embrace the idea of Victim Services providing more training for the SCU. Those conversations are still in early stages, but Clark hopes to provide additional "trauma-informed" training to detectives, which teaches investigators how to have more successful interactions with survivors of sexual assault. Research shows that what may appear as abnormal behavior from these survivors – like laughing at law enforcement officers or otherwise behaving angrily – are common responses to trauma. An officer or investigator unfamiliar with these concepts might be less prone to believe a victim.

Moving the Right Direction

A Victim Services counselor is also now staffed full time at Austin's police academy; currently, their time (along with that of many community volunteers) is focused on reviewing and identifying needs for improvement in the academy curriculum, which Chacon, Council, and City Manager Spencer Cronk have all committed to "reimagining" as quickly as possible. In the future, Victim Services will provide more in-person training to better prepare cadets, as they become front-line patrol officers, to interact with victims of sex crimes.

APD Chief Joseph Chacon at his swearing-in ceremony (Photo by John Anderson)
“One of Chacon’s strengths I can see at this point is his ability to iterate. Try something, see if it works, then if it doesn’t, try something new. I hope he will apply this philosophy of innovation to the SCU.”– Council Member Alison Alter

Evidence that such training might be useful can be seen in a temporary suspension Chacon handed down to Brian O'Quinn for mishandling an interaction with a woman reporting a sexual assault. O'Quinn was "rude and acted like he didn't believe [the victim] when she was trying to report a sexual assault and did not arrest the perpetrator," according to the Internal Affairs complaint against the officer. O'Quinn agreed he had acted improperly and received a 20-day suspension. (That's less than the 90-day suspensions Chacon handed down, on the same day, to two officers who tried to cover up a colleague's excessive force against a handcuffed suspect, a discrepancy noted to us by some advocates.)

As for culture change, Krause told us he is fully onboard. "We need to really improve in open communication and dialogue with partners like SARRT, and we've taken a lot of strides to do that," he said. "More of a team-centered approach to investigations is what we need, and that is what I think of most when thinking about culture change."

One of APD's more skeptical observers is Council Member Alison Alter, who has championed survivors' interests and called for greater APD accountability (including the PERF audit) over the past several years. She was one of only two CMs to vote against Chacon's confirmation (the other, Mac­ken­zie Kelly, did so at the urging of the police union) and cited his record as assistant and interim chief while APD's problems with sexual assault cases unfolded. Since that Sept. 30 vote, Alter said, she has been encouraged by "concrete steps to move in the right direction," such as attending SARRT meetings and changing the Victim Services reporting structure.

But he needs to do more, Alter told us, like commit to sharing more data with SARRT, improve the training situation within the SCU, and make the Victim Services Division manager an executive­-level position – not just one that reports directly to the chief. Referring to the chief's response to an interim report that detailed shortfalls in the effort to reimagine the police academy, Alter said, "One of Chacon's strengths I can see at this point is his ability to iterate. Try something, see if it works, then if it doesn't, try something new. I hope he will apply this philosophy of innovation to the SCU."

* Editor's note Nov. 4 3:30pm: This story has been edited since publication to clarify that Victim Services counselors would coordinate between victim/survivors and confidential advocates, not themselves be the advocates in these interviews.

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