Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey outlined a series of measures Tuesday to improve the police department’s response to sexual assault reports, including the possibility of hiring a victim advocate.
Frey’s comments follow the publication of a Star Tribune investigation that documented chronic breakdowns in the investigation and prosecution of sexual assault cases, in Minneapolis and statewide. The yearlong project found hundreds of cases in which police across Minnesota failed to pursue basic investigative steps, including gathering physical evidence and properly interviewing victims.
“Moving forward, I’ll be working with [Police Chief Medaria] Arradondo to build on and substantially reinforce the importance of victim-centered and trauma-informed interview training for our investigators,” Frey said.
Such training would increase the odds of charging suspects and successfully prosecuting cases, Frey said. Trauma-informed interviewing is designed to elicit the most complete possible account of a crime while recognizing that a traumatic incident can affect the way victims recall events.
Frey said he also wants to allocate money for a new crime lab and equipment to investigate sexual assault cases, and wants to hire a victim advocate to work with investigators. Victim advocates have come to play an important role in helping rape survivors get proper medical treatment, recover from an assault and navigate the law enforcement system.
Frey said he wants sex assault victims in Minneapolis to feel safe and confident in reporting a crime.
“The city of Minneapolis is and will be doing everything possible to handle cases with the care and compassion that is deserved, especially for someone who’s gone through the unspeakable trauma of a sex assault,” Frey said.
St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter said he, too, is concerned about issues raised in the Star Tribune report, calling the survivors’ stories “heartbreaking and heart-wrenching.”
Carter said that, working with Police Chief Todd Axtell and Ramsey County Attorney John Choi, he is considering measures such as hiring more investigators, in addition to two recent hires, and additional training for officers who investigate sexual assault cases.
“To me, it highlights the need for additional resources, additional support, and making sure that we are rallying ourselves around not only those survivors but around [attaining] high-quality outcomes for everybody,” he said.
Carter added that if rape survivors feel they aren’t getting adequate attention from the police, “I’d encourage them to report that to our chief and to our office.”
Fielding questions from reporters at the Capitol on Tuesday afternoon, Gov. Mark Dayton also expressed shock at the Star Tribune’s report and called on the state’s police licensing board to produce strong guidelines for sex assault investigations.
“I was very disappointed in the lethargic response of the director of the [Peace Officers Standards and Training] board,” Dayton said. “There’s a lot of initiative they could take to determine, around the country, what are the best practices … for sensitive and responsible responses to victims and to make that training available.”
Dayton said he was drafting a letter to the board, insisting that they address the issue of training and standards for sexual assault investigation with the “urgency that ought to be considered.”
In a statement late Tuesday the board’s executive director, Nate Gove, said he apologized if comments he made to the Star Tribune had come across as callous or unsympathetic.
“As a 28-year law enforcement veteran, I’ve seen the pain of victims firsthand and take these crimes very seriously,’’ Gove said. “I am eager to be part of the process of figuring out how we can best improve these important investigations.’’
Also Tuesday, Minnesota Attorney General Lori Swanson said she plans to form a statewide task force to address shortcomings identified in the Star Tribune report.
Swanson, who is running for governor, said the bipartisan group will include victims’ advocates, health care professionals, law enforcement leaders and policymakers, and will issue recommendations before the 2019 Legislature convenes in January,
“Victims of sexual assault deserve justice, and these cases deserve thorough and proper investigation and prosecution by the criminal justice system,” Swanson said in a statement.
Swanson’s announcement came one day after fellow DFL gubernatorial candidate Rep. Erin Murphy held a news conference to propose a series of reforms, including directing the state Bureau of Criminal Apprehension to create a task force that would audit the investigations of all sexual offenses across the state.
Several other gubernatorial candidates also called for reform in the wake of the Star Tribune report.
U.S. Rep Tim Walz, a DFLer, said he spoke with a constituent last year who said she, too, faced multiple obstacles in trying to report a rape. “When survivors of sexual assault courageously come forward, they deserve a process that provides them with respect, dignity and justice. Unfortunately … this is all too often not the case,” Walz said.
Former Gov. Tim Pawlenty, running on the Republican side of the governor’s race, said he would like to see the state police licensing board develop statewide standards for sexual assault investigations.
“Law enforcement agencies and prosecutors need to focus on better investigation and prosecution of these violent offenders,” Pawlenty said.
The Star Tribune’s yearlong investigation, Denied Justice, found chronic shortcomings in sex assault investigations. In about one-third of the cases studied, the police 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 was ever forwarded to a prosecutor, and fewer than one in 10 resulted in a conviction, according to records reviewed by the newspaper.