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Panel: Minnesota cops must change how they handle sex assault cases

December 18, 2018
State Attorney General Lori Swanson answers questions after a debate on MPR News in August. The attorney general's working group on sexual assaults was established after reporting by the Star Tribune revealed a widespread lack of response to reports and victims of sexual assault.

A blue-ribbon panel of law enforcement professionals, victim advocates and state and local officials has issued a catalog of recommendations designed to improve how Minnesota police handle sex assaults.

The attorney general’s working group on sexual assaults was established after reporting by the Star Tribune newspaper revealed a widespread lack of response from the criminal justice system to reports and victims of sexual assault.

“The first responsibility of government is to keep the public safe, and there have been some gaps and problems in keeping the public safe when it comes to sex assaults,” Attorney General Lori Swanson said Tuesday as the group issued its 47-page report.

One of the report’s key statistics noted that in 2017, Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension data showed the percentage of reported rapes cleared by arrest was barely half the success rate of murder investigations.

“These are profoundly complex and challenging issues,” said Inver Grove Heights police chief Paul Schnell, one of the members of the group. “In the final analysis, I think we just have to do better as a group responding to the needs of those who suffer victimization of these crimes. These oftentimes are women, children and those who are most vulnerable.”

The report’s recommendations included improving investigations with mandatory standards, a focus on including victims and establishing a statewide coordinating council on sex crimes.

The report also called for better training of police, starting as officers join agencies, as well as more services for victims as well as required reporting and audits of law enforcement responses to sex crimes.

Taking sex assault allegations seriously is the first place to start, said Teri McLaughlin, executive director of the Minnesota Coalition Against Sexual Assault. “We really need to start by really believing a crime has been committed, in the same way that we believe other crimes have been committed.”

The nine-member panel of the work group included former Minneapolis City Council president Barbara Johnson, Nicole Matthews with the Minnesota Indian Women’s Sexual Assault Coalition, as well as prosecutors and health care experts.

Swanson said she meant the report to be a step-by-step guide for lawmakers next year and in subsequent legislative sessions and that she would continue to advocate for the changes laid out in the report even after she leaves office in three weeks.

“Non-action is not going to be an option,” she said. “We have failed people here and we have got to stop failing the public.”

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