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Minnesota has ‘systemic’ shortcomings in rape investigations, task force concludes

November 27, 2018

A state task force has concluded that Minnesota suffers from systemic and complex failures in the investigation and prosecution of sexual assaults that require action by the Legislature, the judiciary, law enforcement agencies and prosecutors and the general public.

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 task force and obtained by the Star Tribune. Yet, recent reports have shown significant areas for improvement ... in Minnesota.

The task force, which held its sixth meeting on Tuesday, is also drafting recommendations for the 2019 Legislature. A final report with recommendations is expected to be to be released at the groups final meeting on Dec. 18.

State Attorney General Lori Swanson formed the group in the fall following a Star Tribune investigation that found widespread lapses in the way police handle reports of rape and sexual assault. Subsequent stories examined how drinking significantly reduces the chance of a conviction in sexual assaults and documented that prosecutors often fail to bring charges, even in cases with compelling evidence.

In an effort to improve public understanding of the issue, the task forces report cites several of those findings, as well as national research showing that only a small percentage of 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, it says.

The task force includes representatives from law enforcement agencies, county prosecutors offices, victims advocates, the Indian Womens 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, some sexual assault cases are not prosecuted due to inadequate investigations, misunderstandings, or lack of awareness for the role of trauma-victim survivors, they wrote.

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 thats 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. Nicole 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 that training for officers who investigate sexual assaults is a chronic problem across Minnesota. Most of the states largest law enforcement agencies dont 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 forces 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 thats understandable to anyone thats interested.

Brandon Stahl 612-673-4626

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