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New Investigation Shows That Police Nationwide Often Mishandle Sexual Assault Cases


At police departments across the country, there are discussions underway about how to better handle sexual assault cases. This comes after a joint investigation that zeroed in on how police departments clear rape cases without making an arrest. We'll talk with one of those reporters in a moment. First we go to Austin, Texas, which was singled out. As Audrey McGlinchy of member station KUT explains, the findings have kickstarted a review of police policies.

AUDREY MCGLINCHY, BYLINE: When Marina Conner stood up in front of Austin-elected officials last week, she was insistent. She's a sexual assault survivor and told city council members the stories of others who'd been sexually assaulted and their experiences with law enforcement.


MARINA CONNER: I know survivors that have never been contacted by their detectives, who never got the results from their rape kits. I know survivors who were told their tortures sounded consensual.

MCGLINCHY: At the end of that meeting, the city voted for an independent review of how police handle these kinds of cases from the time someone calls 911 to when the file is closed or given to the district attorney's office for prosecution. Alison Alter is a city council member.


ALISON ALTER: This resolution calls for a thorough evaluation of how reported sexual assaults are investigated and processed, including why a number of reported cases do not proceed to prosecution within the criminal justice system.

MCGLINCHY: The joint investigation published in November focused on police department's use of what's called exceptional clearance in sexual assault cases. This is when police have ID'd an alleged suspect but, for reasons outside their control, cannot arrest that person. Reporters found that Austin police often use exceptional clearance, meaning officers clear a rape case without an arrest. Experts say it should only be used sparingly.


BRIAN MANLEY: All right. Good afternoon. Is everyone ready to begin?

MCGLINCHY: Austin police Chief Brian Manley asked the state to review police practices. The Texas Department of Public Safety found the city's police department cleared a third of the rape cases improperly. That review focused only on three months in 2017. Manley ordered his detectives to be retrained and hired another supervisor in the sex crimes unit.


MANLEY: I can't say that I understand what a survivor goes through, but I know the questioning is difficult. I know that sitting with investigators having to talk about a very violent personal attack can be difficult.

MCGLINCHY: Manley said police had often cleared cases without arresting someone because victims had stopped cooperating. But people who work with sexual assault survivors say there's a reason for that. Amanda Lewis is a social worker.

AMANDA LEWIS: Why are survivors choosing, after initially going through a very challenging process, to then leave the process? And advocates and others would probably say - and I would say this - that it's probably because that process is not serving them.

MCGLINCHY: Lewis says the city needs more information. Why are survivors reporting sexual assaults and then not wanting to continue working with police?

LEWIS: Maybe investigators are saying, hey, this is a he-said, she-said case; you know, there are no witnesses, that this is going to - they're going to drag you through the mud; I - you know, what do you want to do? And then you say no. That would be the context of what's going on. So we need to understand that context.

MCGLINCHY: The review of police ordered by the city of Austin hopes to answer this question. For NPR News, I'm Audrey McGlinchy. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Audrey McGlinchy
Audrey McGlinchy is the City Hall reporter at KUT, covering the Austin City Council and the policies they discuss. She comes to Texas from Brooklyn, where she tried her hand at publishing, public relations and nannying. Audrey holds English and journalism degrees from Wesleyan University and the City University of New York. She got her start in journalism as an intern at KUT Radio during a summer break from graduate school. While completing her master's degree in New York City, she interned at the New York Times Magazine and Guernica Magazine.