Lawmakers looking to improve how police respond to reports of rape and sexual assault will be getting guidance from statewide leaders and experts.
Minnesota Attorney General Lori Swanson has asked a 10-member group, which will start meeting Tuesday, to come up with recommendations to the Legislature by December on how to reform laws and policies — work that Swanson said Wednesday could not just help Minnesota, but become a model across the country.
"We're seeing some of the failures in the criminal justice system," Swanson said. "I'd like to see Minnesota be a national leader in this area."
The start of the new task force follows the Star Tribune's special report, "Denied Justice," documenting pervasive failings in the way Minnesota law enforcement agencies investigate sexual assault. The yearlong project, which examined more than 1,000 sexual assault reports from 2015 and 2016, found hundreds of cases in which police didn't pursue basic investigative steps.
In about one-third of the cases studied, the investigator failed to interview the victim and in half the cases, police failed to interview potential witnesses. Overall, only about one in four reported sexual assaults were forwarded to a prosecutor, and fewer than one in 10 resulted in a conviction.
"The 'Denied Justice' series very much illustrated and highlighted some of the failures in the criminal justice system," Swanson said, calling the newspaper's report "incredibly troubling."
Minnesota doesn't have mandated training or uniform policies for investigating sexual assault cases.
But after the Star Tribune's series, which started in July, some legislators have said they will pursue legislation such as pressing the state's police licensing board to enact a model protocol for responding to sex assaults or additional funding for investigations. Gov. Mark Dayton also called on the state's police licensing board to produce strong guidelines for sex assault, and it's already at work on a draft statewide model policy for sexual assault investigations, and on new training requirements for officers.
"We want to give it the Legislature and say, 'Here's what we've come up with,' " said Tim Bildsoe, civilian chairman of the group, the Peace Officer Standards and Training Board.
Before the next legislative session convenes Jan. 8, the sex assault investigation group will look at if there are better training programs and ways to allocate resources in the state's system.
"This is not a problem unique to Minnesota; it's all across the country," said Barb Johnson, a former Minneapolis City Council member who's leading the group. "We're a progressive state and we can tackle this and make a difference."
Swanson said she selected experts who represent victim/survivor advocates and the criminal justice system who can find consensus.
The others on the task force are Dr. Mark Hudson, medical director at Midwest Children's Resource Center; Lisa Lovering, Isanti County Sheriff's Office sex crime investigator and chief deputy; Nicole Matthews, executive director of the Minnesota Indian Woman's Sexual Assault Coalition; Carolyn Porta, the University of Minnesota School of Nursing's Global Health director and a practicing sexual assault nurse examiner; Teri Walker McLaughlin, executive director of the Minnesota Coalition Against Sexual Assault; Elizabeth Richards, executive director of the Minnesota Coalition for Battered Women; Inver Grove Heights Police Chief Paul Schnell; St. Paul Police Sgt. Nichole Sipes, a veteran sex crimes investigator; and Paul Young, chief attorney of the criminal division of the Anoka County Attorney's Office.
"I'm hoping it will have far-reaching influence," McLaughlin said of the group's eventual recommendations. "This may be a step in the right direction."
With four months left of her tenure as the state's attorney general, Swanson said she hopes her work with sex crime victims will be part of her legacy, citing her work representing the state in a trial defending the constitutionality of the Minnesota Sex Offender Program (MSOP).
"It is a very horrific crime," Swanson said. A victim's life, "once shattered, is never the same."