Comprehensive recommendations from a pair of recent studies are steps in the right direction toward correcting Minnesota law enforcement’s shameful handling of sexual assault cases. The reports included proposals for much-needed legislative, policy and procedural changes.
The suggested policies were produced in response to the ongoing Star Tribune news series “Denied Justice.” As part of the newspaper’s groundbreaking investigation, more than 1,000 sexual assault cases were reviewed from the 20 state law enforcement agencies that reported the most sexual assaults in 2015 and 2016.
Reporters found that in too many cases, police failed to gather evidence, interview witnesses or even assign detectives. And 75 percent of cases were never forwarded to prosecutors to pursue criminal charges and justice for victims. While the highest number of cases were in the Twin Cities, the analysis found that the problem is pervasive in law enforcement across Minnesota.
One set of proposed reforms, issued by a committee of the Minnesota Peace Officers Standards and Training Board (POST), calls for strict new rules and procedures for state cops, including more careful interviewing of victims, specific ways to conduct investigations, and incorporating victim advocates in the investigations.
POST is the state agency that sets standards for and licenses state officers. If passed by its full board, the sexual assault policy guidelines could be sent to all of Minnesota’s 400-plus law enforcement agencies as soon as next month.
The second study group was convened by Minnesota Attorney General Lori Swanson. That wide-ranging task force report wisely provided recommendations not only to law enforcement and POST, but also to the Legislature and prosecutors. It suggests that the Legislature require law enforcement agencies to have in place written sexual assault policies, provide trauma-informed training and make it easier to report assaults.
The attorney general’s report also addressed the issue of alcohol use and consent. It urges lawmakers to consider revising state law to make it easier to prosecute cases in which a victim is awake but too intoxicated to consent to sex. And it suggests that victims not be charged with alcohol-related offenses when they report being assaulted.
“Victim-survivors face enormous barriers to making sexual assault reports,” the analysis found. “Punishing victim-survivors for such low-level offenses needlessly exacerbates the problem.”
The proposed policy menu rightly calls for changing the way sexual assault victims are treated by cops by addressing the culture that nurtures dismissive attitudes. That was one of the major failures “Denied Justice” revealed: Too many of those who report being attacked said they weren’t taken seriously and often felt re-victimized by the officers who were supposed to help them.
Both study groups suggested additional training for cops. That’s critical, although as the Star Tribune Editorial Board has said previously, training alone might not be enough. Sensitivity training and other education efforts geared toward handling sexual assault cases can help those officers who want to improve. But for those who can’t or won’t change, there must be consequences.
Those women who courageously report sexual assault to police deserve better treatment from law enforcement — and ultimately they should receive justice. Recommendations from the two studies can help the Legislature and law enforcement meet those goals.