Minnesota suffers from “systemic and complex” shortcomings in the investigation and prosecution of sexual assaults, according to a state task force that is set to recommend a series of reforms for the Legislature, police and sheriffs’ departments and the judiciary.
“Law enforcement investigations of sexual assaults should treat victim-survivors with respect and dignity, hold offenders accountable, and protect the public from sexual violence,” according to a draft report prepared by the panel and obtained by the Star Tribune. “Yet, recent reports have shown significant areas for improvement … in Minnesota.”
Task force members on Tuesday talked about possible reforms, including improving officer training while reducing caseloads and creating a special board to better hold law enforcement accountable for the quality of its work.
The task force, which met for the sixth time on Tuesday, expects to release a final report with recommendations for the 2019 Legislature at its final meeting on Dec. 18.
State Attorney General Lori Swanson created the task force in September following a Star Tribune investigation that found widespread lapses in the way police handle reports of rape and sexual assault. Subsequent stories examined failures in police training and staffing, and documented that prosecutors often fail to bring charges against suspects, even in cases with compelling evidence.
The task force report, which stresses the need to improve public understanding of sexual assault, cites several of those findings as well as national research showing that only a small percentage of rape victims ever file a report with police and that false accusations are extremely rare.
“It is important to give victim-survivors who do complain confidence in the integrity of the process, so that they will continue the participation needed to bring offenders to justice,” the report says.
The task force includes representatives from law enforcement agencies, county prosecutors’ offices, victim advocacy groups, the Indian Women’s Sexual Assault Coalition and the University of Minnesota School of Nursing. Its chair is former Minneapolis City Council President Barbara Johnson.
The report, written by Deputy Attorney General David Voigt and Assistant Attorney General Jason Marisam, noted that sex assault cases are some of the most difficult to prosecute. “At the same time,” they wrote, “some sexual assault cases are not prosecuted due to inadequate investigations, misunderstandings, or lack of awareness for the role of trauma-victim survivors.”
At its meeting on Tuesday, the group discussed options for holding law enforcement agencies accountable for the quality of their investigations, such as creating a statewide oversight group. A similar statewide group, the Violent Crime Coordinating Council, provides guidance for drug and gang cases.
“Maybe that’s the place that brings that all together, is the coordinating body,” said Inver Grove Heights Police Chief Paul Schnell, a member of the task force.
The group also wants to improve officer training while reducing heavy caseloads for investigators. St. Paul Police Sgt. Nichole Sipes, a veteran sex crimes investigator, said she was recently at a conference where she learned the national average for caseloads was 30 to 50 a year. “In 12 months, I investigated 245 cases,” she said.
The Star Tribune found training for officers who investigate sexual assaults is a chronic problem across Minnesota. Most of the state’s largest law enforcement agencies don’t require it, nor does the state board that oversees the licensing and training of police officers.
Sipes said she would like to see more training in investigating such cases. The challenge will be funding the reforms, but several in the group suggested that grants from the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension could help.
The task force report will be provided to the Legislature in time for the 2019 session.
“It will be distributed as widely as we can,” Voigt said. “The idea is to come up with a public report that’s understandable to anyone that’s interested.”