A state task force appointed to rectify “systemic failures” in the way Minnesota law enforcement agencies handle sex assault cases issued a wide ranging set of policy recommendations on Tuesday ahead of the 2019 legislative session.
The panel called for legislation that would require police agencies to adopt clear protocols on sexual assault cases, improve officer training and collect better data on such investigations. The Legislature should also consider creating a statewide council focused on sex assault investigations and set aside money for “innovation grants” for agencies, the report added.
State Attorney General Lori Swanson created the task force in September following a Star Tribune investigation that documented widespread failings in the investigation and prosecution of rape and sexual assault in Minnesota. On Tuesday, the group also issued numerous recommendations for law enforcement agencies, county prosecutors and the state board that licenses and oversees more than 12,000 sworn officers in the state.
“The first responsibility of government is to keep the public safe and there have been gaps and failures when it comes to keeping the public safe from sex assaults,” Swanson said at the group’s final meeting Tuesday at the State Capitol.
A second set of reforms is being prepared by the Minnesota Peace Officer Standards and Training (POST) Board, which licenses law enforcement officers in the state.
A working group of the board on Monday presented a draft policy of strict new protocols to improve sexual assault investigations, ranging from how to gather evidence to interviewing victims.
“It’s our role to help ensure officers are prepared to help their communities,” Nate Gove, the board’s executive director, said in a statement Tuesday.
Swanson’s task force met six times before issuing its final 50-page report with recommendations for the 2019 Legislature. Former Minneapolis City Council President Barb Johnson served as chairwoman for the nine-person group, whose members included representatives from law enforcement, county attorney’s offices, victim advocacy groups and medical professionals.
Tuesday’s report acknowledged that the scope of its ambitions may exceed what can be accomplished in one year.
Its far-reaching list of recommendations include a change to the Minnesota statutes that govern rape, alcohol and consent; and measures to reverse longstanding dismissive attitudes among some officers toward sex assault cases.
Inver Grove Heights Police Chief Paul Schnell said the Star Tribune’s findings “should be a concern for all of us.” While Tuesday’s report is a start, Schnell said, rebuilding trust among sexual assault survivors is still a work in progress.
“I think it’s important that they understand that there is a system and network in our state that is here to address these issues to investigate them thoroughly and hopefully to find some sense of justice — whatever that ultimately looks like,” Schnell said.
Nicole Matthews, executive director of the Minnesota Indian Women’s Sexual Assault Coalition, criticized the report for not including recommendations specific to sexual violence against American Indian women, but said she still hopes to see that addressed as some of the proposals are implemented. She called for agencies to collect better data specific to the race of victims and perpetrators “so that we can have a full understanding of who is getting a response and who is not getting a response from the system.”
Gov.-elect Tim Walz said he will “partner with survivors, investigators, advocates and prosecutors to help bring greater justice to survivors of sexual assault.”
The Attorney General’s group rolled out a total of 25 recommendations to be considered in 2019, 11 of which would need to be taken up by lawmakers when the 2019 Legislature convenes Jan. 7.
The task force recommended that legislators improve data collection on sex crimes and establish a presumption that police will investigate all sex assault allegations reported to them.
The report asked lawmakers to mimic existing legislation requiring colleges and universities to send sex assault data to the Office of Higher Education to be published online each year.
Other suggested reforms included expanding the state Victim’s Rights statute to add a provision entitling victim-survivors access to advocates who are often trained in “trauma-informed advocacy” and can help survivors navigate the criminal justice process.
But the report’s authors added that the effectiveness of that requirement may depend on how many qualified victim advocates are available in the state.
Tuesday’s report also asked lawmakers to consider revising state law to make it easier to prosecute cases where a victim is awake but too intoxicated to consent to sex, and called for authorities to not charge victims with alcohol-related offenses when they report being assaulted.
“Victim-survivors face enormous barriers to making sexual assault reports,” the report said. “Punishing victim-survivors for such low-level offenses needlessly exacerbates the problem.”
Other suggested statutory reforms include repealing a “marital exception” statute that bars prosecution in certain cases involving “cohabitating couples.”
The report also took aim at what it called “systemic problems” with officers’ attitudes toward working sex assault cases, citing a retired Minneapolis police lieutenant who told the Star Tribune that “running the sex crimes unit was considered a dead-end assignment for command staff in Minneapolis.”
“Victim-survivors should not have to accept working with an investigator who does not want to be in the unit and does not value the work that the unit does, or an investigator who has no understanding of the impact of trauma,” the report said.
State prosecutors, meanwhile, are urged to expand their review of law enforcement investigations, be trained in victim-survivor trauma, and consider taking cases for prosecution even when “evidence to prove a conviction beyond a reasonable doubt is less than certain.”
Prosecutors should also seek upward departures in asking for sentences in cases of sex assault against people with disabilities and to consider seeking life sentences in cases involving a “heinous element” such as torture or great bodily harm, the report concluded.
Teri McLaughlin, executive director of the Minnesota Coalition Against Sexual Assault, called the report a “great start” and sounded an optimistic note about its prospects for encouraging reform across multiple disciplines.
“We need to really start by agreeing that we believe a crime has been committed,” McLaughlin said. “In the same manner that we believe that of other crimes when they’re reported. And from that we have a basis to move forward.”