A task force of law officers, public health officials and victim advocates vowed Tuesday to scrutinize the way sexual assaults are investigated in Minnesota, with the goal of recommending reforms to the Legislature before it convenes in January.
Minnesota Attorney General Lori Swanson said the group will have a broad mandate, from reworking sex crime statutes, to proposing more funding for officers and training, to issuing best practices for police investigations.
“Let’s learn from what’s working and let’s … fix the things that aren’t working,” Swanson said as members gathered at the State Capitol for their first meeting.
Swanson announced the task force in late July as the Star Tribune began publishing a series that has documented pervasive breakdowns in rape investigations across the state. A review of more than 1,200 sexual assault files found hundreds of cases in which police failed to take basic steps, such as collecting evidence and interviewing witnesses, even as very few cases resulted in convictions.
At Tuesday’s meeting, some task force members said people have been working for decades to help sexual assault victims get justice. But they said there is a renewed focus on the issue following the Star Tribune’s special report, “Denied Justice.”
In addition to changes at the Legislature, Swanson said she wants the task force to examine the way police departments pursue sex crime investigations, including how detectives are assigned, how evidence is preserved and whether background checks are routinely conducted.
Victim sensitivity and compassion are also critical, Swanson said, noting that people are more likely to cooperate with the criminal justice system if they feel they are being treated with dignity. She suggested that the group look into victims’ rights and ways to ensure that sex assault survivors are kept informed on their cases.
Additionally, she said, the group could review model policies for law enforcement training. Minnesota’s Peace Officer Standards and Training (POST) Board is developing a model policy for sex assault investigations and considering statewide officer training objectives.
Task force member Liz Richards, executive director of the Minnesota Coalition for Battered Women, said the state could choose from several good model policies, including one developed by the International Association of Chiefs of Police.
At the same time, Richards said, Minnesota has to consider monitoring the performance of police agencies and enforcing compliance with best practices. She said many cities have adopted model policies but that officers at times still fail to properly investigate cases.
Her organization has recommended that the POST Board have authority to sanction officers who repeatedly fail to follow sexual assault policies. It also suggested the Department of Public Safety’s Crime Victim Justice Unit have more authority and resources to monitor law enforcement compliance with the policies.
Deputy Attorney General David Voigt, who is helping run the group, suggested that the task force spend the next month or so doing research, then compile recommendations in November and approve a report for the Legislature by sometime in December.