A review of hundreds of sexual assault cases in Ramsey County revealed that few make it to court, investigators and prosecutors received little to no training on the matter and important data are often omitted from police reports.
The two-year review conducted by the Ramsey County Attorney's Office will be released Friday with plans to revamp workplace practices and staffing. While authorities applauded the effort, the report uncovered uncomfortable truths that have hampered the investigation and prosecution of sexual assaults.
"A lot needs to change," Ramsey County Attorney John Choi said. "We're falling short on what really needs to happen, and it's not on par with other types of crime."
Assistant Ramsey County Attorney Kaarin Long reviewed 646 cases filed with several east metro police agencies and Metro Transit between 2013 and 2016. The data did not draw conclusions about how demographic information or factors such as the presence of alcohol or a prior relationship affected the perception and outcome of cases.
The review showed that 192 cases, or about 30 percent, were referred by police to the County Attorney's Office for possible charges. Of those, 74 cases, or 37 percent, were charged and 60 percent were declined. About 3 percent of cases resulted in other action, including being returned to police for further investigation. The conviction rate for cases that were charged was about 70 percent. That translates to convictions in about 8 percent of total cases filed.
Caroline Palmer, public and legal affairs manager for the Minnesota Coalition Against Sexual Assault, reviewed the report but was not involved in the study. She said the county's numbers are on par with national statistics.
"It's a similar type of attrition rate," she said. "In general, we know that our society still kind of operates on the he-said-she-said framework and wants more evidence, but that's not always" possible.
It's widely accepted by advocates and law enforcement that only about 20 percent of all sexual assault cases are reported to authorities nationwide because of victims' concerns about being believed and feelings of shame.
Choi said one challenge is that about 26 percent of victims "drop out" of cases. Unlike in domestic abuse investigations, Choi said, authorities will not move forward with sexual abuse cases unless a victim cooperates.
"We do think it's really important that the victim's wishes are followed," Palmer said. "We tend to say that the victim is the expert in their case. They know all the factors. They have to live with the consequences and the aftermath of whatever happens."
Long's review documented a number of shortcomings without correlating their effect on case resolution: police were inconsistent in recording the race of victims, advocates said those with mental illness received less thorough responses from police, search warrants were not executed in 88 percent of cases and no electronic evidence was sought in about 70 percent of the cases.
Investigators took an average of 20 days to conduct a second interview with victims, and in-person interviews were conducted about 54 percent of the time when they should be more common, the report said.
St. Paul police ranked lowest for in-person interviews at 44 percent, compared with between 50 and 70 percent for the other law enforcement agencies examined: the Ramsey County Sheriff's Office and Maplewood, Metro Transit, New Brighton and Roseville police.
Choi — along with St. Paul police Chief Todd Axtell; Ramsey County Commissioner Jim McDonough, a survivor of childhood sexual abuse; and Anne Barry, director of Ramsey County Public Health — is expected to announce the hiring of two additional police investigators and two new advocates to work on sexual assault cases.
"The most promising thing to me … is that I see all the partners at the table … aren't at the table defending what they do or pretending that everything is good," Axtell said. "Everyone is at the table because everyone understands more can and should be done to protect the victims of sexual assault."
The County Attorney's Office plans to move about $300,000 from its criminal forfeiture proceeds to fund the police investigators with the hope that Mayor Melvin Carter will continue funding the positions once the county attorney's money runs out in two years, Choi said.
"I appreciate the opportunity and look forward to fully evaluating it," Carter said about funding the new investigators. "I'm excited to see what feedback we get through public engagement during our budget deliberations."
Axtell said his current team of six sexual assault investigators handled about 1,800 cases last year, averaging about 300 cases each. Two advocates will join public health's team of five, who are assisted by about 100 volunteers.
"Obviously, that's incredibly difficult," Axtell said of the caseload. "We have to invest more on the front end of these investigations to make sure that our victims receive the necessary services they need."
The report showed that police officers specializing in sexual assault investigations received little to no training on the issue.
"In the survey of 15 [police] investigators, 7 had only one training on sexual assault before starting investigations," the report said. "Five of them had zero sexual assault trainings before beginning."
It wasn't any better at the County Attorney's Office, where no formal system is in place to train prosecutors handling such crimes. Victim advocates in the office recommended training prosecutors on a number of issues, from "demeanor with victims" to cultural differences to working with teens and people with mental health issues.
"The [Ramsey County Attorney's Office] advocates also noted that victims/survivors struggle with the amount of time they have to wait for their case to be reviewed," the report said. "They conveyed a sense that, in general, 'problematic' cases from a charging perspective go a little lower in the pile and stronger cases get charged more quickly."
Authorities said other changes could include connecting advocates with victims more often and as soon as possible, moving faster with investigations and prosecutions, collecting more electronic evidence and creating a system to share sexual assault information between different police departments. Chief Axtell will also lead the newly formed East Metro Sexual Assault Task Force, and has invited 29 other agencies from the state, Dakota, Ramsey and Washington counties to join. The first meeting is scheduled for May.