The Star Tribune’s “Denied Justice” series on rape investigations (July 22-Aug. 12) has been compelling; I am grateful to the victim-survivors who have shared their stories. I’ve investigated hundreds of sex crimes and am always moved by the level of trust that victims place in law enforcement and other members of the criminal-justice system. As a career police officer, former sex crimes investigator and current Inver Grove Heights chief of police, I want to apologize for the additional harm inflicted on victims due to law enforcement failures.
It’s not easy to admit failure, and it’s particularly hard when the impact of victimization is so personal. I can’t speak to the specific shortcomings highlighted in the “Denied Justice” articles, and I don’t write to make excuses. I don’t want to vilify the investigators who erred in the highlighted cases. Doing so would be disingenuous; I was not a perfect sex-crime investigator. Even today I think back on investigations in which I should have done more — times when I could have advocated more firmly to get cases charged by prosecution, times when I could have better communicated with victims. But we cannot let past failings prevent us from improving.
I know that the vast majority of cops enter the field to help victims find some justice. Despite this motivation, there are many reasons why outcomes in sexual-assault cases in Minnesota and across our nation are dismal. These cases are affected by powerful social influences, including gender bias and a general societal orientation toward victim-blaming. The stories in “Denied Justice” should sound an unmistakable alarm for Minnesota law enforcement. This is our opportunity to implement a systemic victim-centered response. Demonstrating our care and utmost professional responsibility for the victims of these horrific crimes demands the dedicated effort of every patrol officer, investigator, supervisor, chief or sheriff.
As I’ve read the series, I’ve been reminded of a now-retired police sergeant from Australia who had posed the following questions to a group of cops: “What does good policing look like, and how do you know if you’re doing it?” The Star Tribune’s reporting suggests that question is crucial. Now is not the time for defensiveness and scapegoating. Now is the time to identify “what good looks like.” We need to focus our attention on identifying and institutionalizing best practices in sexual-assault investigations and creating mechanisms of checks and balances to ensure quality control. As “Denied Justice” points out, a relatively small number of these cases result in criminal prosecution. That current fact should not deter us from the responsibility of conducting careful and complete investigations. It is the role of law enforcement to seek the truth and collect all evidence in support of truth-finding. It is the role of the prosecutor to assess the viability of a given case against the standard of “proof beyond a reasonable doubt.” When law enforcement assesses the investigative case against the reasonable-doubt standard, we shortcut the investigation and any chance of prosecution.
I do not want victims of sexual assault to be afraid to report to law enforcement. A lack of trust in our response can result in further harm to the victim and is utterly contrary to the safety and well-being of everyone. We can improve victim trust by institutionalizing best practices across the state.
Justice can be described in many ways. We all know that not every case — even those with full and complete investigations — will end with criminal charges. For many victims, the seeds of justice-seeking come with the knowledge that they were believed and that the inquiry into their report was honored by meaningful action. Listening carefully to a victim’s experience, collecting all evidence, communicating with the victim and thoughtfully reviewing the case facts can help some victims take the first steps toward healing.
An effective and meaningful response to allegations of sexual assault also increases the safety of the communities we serve by holding perpetrators accountable. As the Star Tribune’s reporting demonstrates, we cannot forget that failing to investigate such cases effectively gives sexual offenders — including serial perpetrators — a pass.
Also, the longer I’m in this business, the more I realize that “good policing” is a team sport — it’s done through partnership. That means trusting the experience, feedback and expertise of victim-advocacy groups.
How do we know we’re doing good policing in response to sexual-assault cases? Though the answer is complicated, considerations certainly include thoughtful assessment of the challenges to our effectiveness, listening to our critics without defensiveness and taking immediate steps to improve investigative practice and case handling.
Paul Schnell is the chief of the Inver Grove Heights Police Department.