Minneapolis police said this week that they will hire an advocate for rape victims to work full-time alongside investigators, a move that comes amid calls for systemic changes and new procedures to ensure accusations are investigated.
The as-yet-unnamed advocate from the Sexual Violence Center, a local nonprofit focused on combating sexual violence and abuse, will be embedded with the department’s Sex Crimes Unit. The advocate will accompany victims as they bring their cases to police, as the department already does with victims of domestic abuse.
Kristen Houlton Shaw, the center’s executive director, said Minneapolis police first approached her with the idea two years ago. The new position, she said, allows victims to more easily navigate the sometimes labyrinthine process of reporting an assault.
“Where there’s been a gap was in having advocates more involved in supporting victims whose cases are actually moving forward in this process, which is where this position is so meaningful,” she said. “Sometimes having that support person in the room can make people just a little bit more comfortable, a little bit safer, and the information they’re providing to law enforcement flows a little bit easier.”
The advocate’s salary will be paid for by an $80,000 allocation in the city’s 2018 budget for a sexual assault survivor advocate pilot program.
Victim advocates have come to play an important role in helping rape survivors get proper medical treatment, recover from an assault and traverse the law enforcement system. The move comes after a monthslong Star Tribune investigation documented serious lapses in how Minnesota law enforcement agencies, including Minneapolis, investigate sexual assault.
In its reporting, the Star Tribune examined more than 1,000 sexual assault reports in the Twin Cities and around Minnesota since 2015 and found hundreds of rape cases in which police departments failed to take rudimentary investigative steps to solve crimes. The revelations were followed by public reprimands and calls for sweeping improvements and accountability amid a national reckoning on sexual misconduct.
Minnesota police struggled to investigate cases of sex assault in the years reviewed, often failing to interview witnesses, collect evidence or even assign detectives in cases in which the victim was drinking.
Only about one in four sex assault reports filed with Minneapolis police is sent to the county attorney for prosecution. About a third of the sex assault cases handled by county prosecutors come from Minneapolis, Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman has said.
Minneapolis police spokesman Scott Seroka said in a statement that the advocate will “work directly with victims, offering them support and updates throughout the investigative process, as well as expediting their access to valuable social service resources.”
“This position increases the department’s commitment toward providing professional service by ensuring more robust and comprehensive services are available to the victims of sex crimes,” he said.
The change represents a first step toward changing the culture around sexual violence, said Teri Walker McLaughlin, executive director at the Minnesota Coalition Against Sexual Assault (MNCASA).
“It’s more than a Band-Aid, but this isn’t a singular layer type of problem,” she said. “This is multilayered, multifaceted, and we’re going to have to go far deeper and still ensure that law enforcement is properly trained, policies and protocols are designed and victim-centered, and that there is a mechanism that’s in place that allows review.”
The move also fulfills a commitment made by Mayor Jacob Frey to hire an advocate in the wake of the monthslong investigation.
In an interview last month, Frey told the Star Tribune he would work with Police Chief Medaria Arradondo to improve training for sex crimes investigators, as well as allocate money for a new crime lab and equipment to investigate sexual assault cases.
Freeman, who is facing re-election this fall, vowed to redouble his office’s efforts in prosecuting sexual assault cases, including more scrutiny of cases that police close without assigning an investigator and cases never referred to prosecutors. He also said he’d seek county funds to hire more sex crimes prosecutors.
Staff writers Brandon Stahl, Jennifer Bjorhus and MaryJo Webster contributed to this report.