Five months after a troubling report from the Portland city auditor’s office found major problems in how officials respond to sex crimes, police leaders outlined Tuesday how things are improving.
City auditors sounded cautiously supportive of the changes, and commissioners applauded the actions – though some problems remain. Rob Manning reports.
A sexual assault case typically starts with call to 9-1-1. But according to an audit completed last June, that’s also where the problems begin.
Principal auditor, Ken Gavette, says that 9-1-1 dispatchers are supposed to advise rape victims on how to preserve DNA, or other evidence. Gavette says that information was not always getting through.
Ken Gavette: “They actually had in the training policies and procedures a good piece of information about what they should say, about telling victims about appropriate washing, going to the bathroom, and things like that – but they weren’t consistently giving that information out.”
Gavette says in some cases, the dispatchers didn’t pass the message along because police officers or nurses called – and dispatchers assumed law enforcement or medical professionals knew what to do. 9-1-1 call center supervisor Toni Sexton says that policy has been tightened.
Toni Sexton: “And we also are making sure that from now and on to advise the caller not to bathe, or not to wash anything that may contain evidence.”
Sexton says that advice is now issued whether it’s the victim, a relative, or a nurse calling. But while some of the personnel issues may be resolved, some technical issues remain.
For instance, at the same time that dispatchers notify a uniform officer to respond, experts say another call should alert a victim’s advocate. Police say the advocate call will be automated in a few months.
And, principal auditor Ken Gavette says there are other remaining issues – like hospitals not having equipment to process rape kits. And he says Multnomah County has fewer medical examiners qualified to deal with rape victims, than smaller counties.
Ken Gavette: “Multnomah County area lags far behind the rest of the state. Just for example, I mean Coos County has 12, Linn County has 15, Jackson County 23, and Multnomah County has 12.”
But the focus of the audit’s criticism was directed at the police, who are responsible after the 9-1-1 call and the initial hospital visit. The audit focused on 62 of about 700 unsolved sex crime cases dating back to 2002. It found that more than half of those cases had never been assigned to a detective.
The audit suggested that high turnover and low morale among sex crimes’ detectives was partly to blame.
Mike Geiger is the new sergeant in charge of the sexual assault unit. He says the culture is changing.
Mike Geiger: “What I’m seeing now is the detectives in the detail, we have a very high morale. There are other people now asking to come into the detail, I get calls from other detectives and for me that’s very exciting, because this is an important place to be. It’s important work that we have to do.”
Geiger has gotten more detectives. His boss, Chief Rosie Sizer, says she wants money for more sex crime specialists. But law enforcement officials say that the key is not just more people.
They say some of the same people are now working more closely together with the goal of looking out for victims and convicting sex offenders.
For instance, Multnomah County District Attorney, Michael Schrunk has physically moved one of his deputy DA’s to the sexual assault police detail. He says the move will help prevent delays in sending cases back and forth.
Michael Schunk: “We know the police bureau wants their case to be picture perfect before they package it up and bring it over to us, and we sit down and review it and critique it and frequently send it back. There’s a time gap, so, we thought, if we assign someone who has had good experience, right away, you could have as an ongoing process.”
Schrunk’s assistant says having everyone in one place will also help victims get familiar with the various people involved – so they’re not surprised or confused, later on.
Technical issues plague the investigation stage, as well. It’s still difficult for police officers to file or access reports right away. And detectives say they don’t have enough vehicles to get where they need to go.
However, city leader said they were encouraged that sex crimes would be handled better in the future. Mayor – and former police chief – Tom Potter says the response should reassure Portlanders.
Tom Potter: “If they have the unfortunate experience of being the victim of a sexual assault that our public safety, the District Attorney’s office, the rape victims’ advocates, will be there for them.”
Auditors sounded pleased with the preliminary results, but they plan to examine them more later. They’ll officially review the reforms next June.