Ramsey County Attorney John Choi and law enforcement personnel stood shoulder to shoulder Thursday morning and promised to do a better job investigating sex crimes and working with victims.
Choi and leaders from nine police agencies, including St. Paul, Maplewood, Roseville and the Ramsey County Sheriff’s Office, signed the new “Sexual Assault Response Collaboration” agreement.
The seven-page document lays out changes starting from the moment a victim first calls police through investigation, charging and conviction.
“What we are really doing is making a promise to the public and to our victims that we can indeed do better,” Choi said.
Among the most dramatic changes: All patrol officers in the county will go through specialized training for responding to sex crimes.
Victim advocates are now reaching out to sex crimes complainants rather than waiting to be contacted. Victim advocates are now in the room offering support during police interviews.
Police have committed to more rigorously investigating cases, including scouring social media and text messages, collecting more physical evidence and conducting more forensic exams. Police say they will interview more witnesses and vowed to interview victims in person when possible.
“At the onset of the investigation, we are collecting as much evidence as we can,” said Assistant Ramsey County Attorney Kaarin Long, who is leading the efforts in the prosecutor’s office. “When we have that additional evidence, that makes a huge difference with juries.”
Finally, Choi vowed to take more risks and bring more cases to trial if prosecutors are convinced of the suspect’s guilt.
In 2016, Choi announced his intention to overhaul the way Ramsey County prosecutors and police handle sex crimes after a sobering analysis: Only 11 percent of the 650 sexual assaults reported to authorities in a three-year period resulted in charges. His office and law enforcement agencies have collaborated for several years on the new plan.
A day earlier, Minneapolis leaders and police independently announced their own plan to improve sexual assault investigations and treatment of victims, attributing the initiative to a Star Tribune series, “Denied Justice,” which exposed widespread failures investigating and prosecuting rape across the state.
The work in Ramsey County is already underway, Choi said.
Six staff — two St. Paul police investigators, one Ramsey County sheriff’s investigator, two victims’ advocates and one prosecutor — have been added in the past year. In addition, some suburban agencies, including Roseville police, are lobbying their city council for funds to add additional investigators.
Choi and police said some early numbers show promise. The number of victims working with advocates from Ramsey County’s SOS Sexual Violence Services has climbed from 768 in 2016 to 1,219 last year. Choi credits more direct outreach by advocates.
Advocates are supporting victims through police interviews and connecting them with emergency assistance, counseling, medical services and child care. They’re also helping victims check in with police about the status of the criminal cases.
Before, about 26 percent of victims dropped out of criminal cases, Long said.
“Hopefully, now they will feel more comfortable and stay involved in the investigation,” Long said.
Having advocates in the interview room is helping both victims and police. “Victims want to talk more with their advocate there,” said Jessica O’Hern, the Ramsey County sheriff’s newly appointed sex crimes investigator.
The number of cases where charges have been filed has risen more modestly, from 94 in 2015 to 116 last year. Choi said he expects the numbers to rise because of the new procedures.
St. Paul Police Chief Todd Axtell said his department has seen a 24 percent year-over-year increase in reported sexual assaults.
“Some police chiefs may say that’s a sign of failure that we have that many more sexual assault cases,” Axtell said. “I am here to tell you that’s a sign of success, because our victims feel more empowered today than at any other time in history to come forward.”
Prosecutors and investigators have begun regular meetings every few weeks to discuss cases. Prosecutors are also going through training to learn how to maximize expert witness testimony so that jurors will better understand the effects of trauma and a victim’s state of mind.
“You have to know how to use the information you have. You have to think about the details,” Long said. “When someone has bullet holes, you know there is a crime. When sex is involved, it may or may not be a crime.”
The effort goes beyond police and prosecutors. Additional investigation requires more search warrants and judges willing to sign them. It takes city councils willing to fund additional investigators long term, and it takes public education so that juries better understand the dynamics of sexual violence.
“ ‘He said, she said’ — that is the stereotype we have to break down,” said Jim Falkowski, St. Paul police sexual violence unit commander.
At Thursday’s signing, rape survivor Sarah Super lauded efforts by police, prosecutors and advocates to improve investigative procedures and treatment of victims.
Super was raped by an ex-boyfriend who broke into her St. Paul apartment. Her attacker was convicted and sent to prison in 2015.
She described a system that worked for her and should work for other victims.
“Seeing my perpetrator held accountable for his crime has done more for my healing than I can possibly describe. … His 12-year sentence validated the importance of my safety and the safety of women everywhere,” Super said. “Every survivor who seeks justice from this system deserves the compassionate and affirming response that I received.”