City of Austin settles lawsuit with survivors of sexual assault

The City of Austin has settled a lawsuit with survivors of sexual assault who argued their cases were mishandled by the Austin Police Department and the District Attorney’s office. 

Austin City Council approved a settlement with 15 women who alleged there were failures in the handling of investigations into sexual assaults that occurred between 2006 and 2019. The settlement comprises a payment of $825,000 to be shared among the 15 plaintiffs and an additional $50,000 to the plaintiffs’ attorneys, according to the city. 

The city will also reportedly issue an official apology to the plaintiffs. 

Since the complainants’ allegations, the City of Austin says it has updated elements of its policies and procedures to ensure that, in the future, survivors of sexual assault who come forward will be treated seriously, will be communicated with effectively, and will have their claims investigated thoroughly. 

The city has spent $3.5 million since 2019 to improve APD investigations of sexual assaults and has now earmarked another $862,000 for future improvements, according to the press release.  

The City of Austin has also commissioned an independent, external audit of city practices from the Police Executive Research Forum, Women’s Law Project, and Wellesley Centers for Women. Their comprehensive analysis of how APD conducts investigations of sexual assault and what improvements can be made is expected to be published in May 2022.  

"We have taken important steps to improve how law enforcement handles sexual assault reporting, processing, investigations, and prosecutions, and we are committed to continue improving," said City Manager Spencer Cronk. "All survivors should feel safe, heard, and have confidence in every step of the process." 

Some reforms implemented by the Austin Police Department since 2019 include:

Reforms to improve the experience of victims: 

  • Creation of a soft interview room for survivors. 
  • Option to have third party sit in on interview. 
  • Option to have APD Victim Services counselors sit in on survivor interviews. 
  • Survivor notification protocol developed to better inform survivors of progress in their cases. 
  • Plans to introduce a voluntary survey for survivors to take at case closure to share their experiences with APD. 

Reforms to improve investigations of sexual assault: 

  • New protocol requiring APD to request a Victim Services Crisis Response Team to respond to sex crime calls at the same time that officers are assigned to the call. The goal is to enhance the support given to victims during their initial contact with law enforcement, to reduce the number of times the victim needs to describe the assault, and to provide a coordinated response from law enforcement and counseling support for survivors of sexual assault. 
  • Creation of a Cold Case Unit to investigate historic sexual assault cases. 
  • Plans to create a staff position to enable tracking of data related to sexual assault investigations to provide insights into how cases are handled. 
  • Policies have been updated to reflect the new state law called the Lavinia Masters Act, passed in 2019, which requires APD to analyze each Sexual Assault Kit within 90 days of receipt and to upload the completed analysis into the CODIS database with 30 days of completion. 

Reforms to increase resources and improve training: 

  • Additional staff have been added to the Sex Crimes Unit, including detectives and Victim Services personnel. 
  • Enhanced training introduced for cadets and detectives.  
  • APD will implement additional training for officers and detectives, as well as work in partnership with local commissions and community groups to ensure the best outcome for all parties involved. 
  • Police Chief Joseph Chacon has rejoined Sexual Assaults Response and Resource Team (SARRT). 

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