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Senior Research Scientist Linda M. Williams and Operations Manager Mary E. Frederick of WCW’s Justice and Gender-Based Violence Research Initiative recently collaborated with the Philadelphia Women’s Law Project and the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF) to audit the Austin Police Department’s handling of sexual assault cases.

In September 2019, the Austin City Council undertook the audit after a joint investigation from ProPublica, Newsy, and Reveal highlighted practices used by police departments in Austin and elsewhere to close sexual assault cases inappropriately and without making an arrest. Cases would be classified as “cleared by exceptional means” and would not move forward in the justice system—at times when there was enough evidence to make an arrest and police knew who and where the suspect was, and in other instances when the cases had not been completely investigated.

This is a topic the Justice and Gender-Based Violence Research Initiative has studied extensively, finding this misdesignation of cases results in very high rates of sexual assault cases being closed without an arrest or trial, a phenomenon known as case attrition.

Many of the report’s findings are relevant to police departments across the country.

The audit of reports of sexual assaults to Austin police, led by PERF, involved a detailed and systematic review of 1,430 sexual assault cases filed between 2012 and 2020. The review examined the nature and effectiveness of the police response as well as the characteristics of reports that did and did not result in thorough police investigation and those that did not move forward to arrest and prosecution. The team also reviewed the department’s policies and procedures and conducted interviews with key personnel and with survivors who reported to the police.

The report was released by the city of Austin in November 2022, and was covered by local news outlets including the Austin Chronicle, Community Impact Newspaper, and local Austin TV stations. The report found, for example, that detectives infrequently responded to the scene of the incident or the hospital; that detectives’ interviews with victims, suspects, and witnesses were often delayed or failed to occur; that antiquated sexual assault policies needed to be updated; and that officers, detectives, and supervisors tasked with responding to sexual assaults were insufficiently trained to do so.

“Many of the report’s findings are relevant to police departments across the country,” said Williams, who leads the Justice and Gender-Based Violence Research Initiative. “And they are in line with what we’ve previously found in our research on how sexual assault cases are handled.”

In 2019, Williams, Frederick, and colleagues April Pattavina and Melissa Morabito concluded a multi-year study funded by the National Institute of Justice that investigated sexual assault case attrition and the factors associated with why so few sexual assault cases move forward to arrest and prosecution in the U.S. criminal justice system. In their review of 2,887 sexual assault cases, they found that fewer than a fifth of all cases resulted in an arrest and that about 30 percent were concluded through exceptional clearance. Williams and Frederick also have extensive experience interviewing stakeholders, including survivors of sexual assault.

“It’s important to study how police handle these cases so that we can determine best practices in responding to sexual assault—no matter where or to whom it happens,” said Williams. “The more we know about obstacles to investigation and prosecution, especially when we hear the voices of survivors, the more we can offer solutions that achieve justice.”

February 16, 2023

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