Minnesota task force calls for improvements in handling of sexual assault cases

Minnesota Attorney General Lori Swanson and a task force found Minnesota has much to improve upon when it comes to the handling of sexual assault cases.

In the Minneapolis Police Department, the Sex Crimes Unit was long perceived as a kind of banishment for disgruntled cops, or those who got in trouble with the administration. During a press conference Tuesday, the task force Swanson appointed to review the issue revealed the attitude is not uncommon, and that victims deserve better. 

"Involving cultural attitudes in some departments where it wasn’t deemed as an attractive assignment to be in the Sex Crimes Unit. It wasn’t deemed to be an assignment people wanted to do,” said Swanson. “That’s simply wrong. It’s unconscionable.” 

There likely would be no task force without a series from the Star Tribune, “Denied Justice,” which examined more than 1,400 sexual assault cases from 20 law enforcement agencies, and found systemic problems in how rapes are reported, investigated and prosecuted.  

"It’s essential we begin to focus on rebuilding trust focus of victims and we have to remember that often times, these are women and children and those who most vulnerable," said Inver Grove Heights Police Chief Paul Schnell.

“We need to start by agreeing that a crime has been committed in the same way we believe other crimes are committed,” said Teri McLaughlin, Minnesota Coalition Against Sexual Assault.

According to the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, while 74 percent of the murders in Minnesota last year led to an arrest that was true with only 38 percent of rape cases. That's only if the case is reported to police to begin with; the vast majority are not. Even if it's reported to police, most cases are never prosecuted because it's considered a case of "he said, she said."

The task force recommendations include that the Legislature require agencies to adopt sex assault policies and that the police departments provide adequate training and foster a culture that supports a sex crimes unit. 

Those recommendations are the same for politicians. Earlier this month, when the Minneapolis City Council cut the budget of the MPD for a million dollars, part of that money would have been used to free up four more detectives for the Sex Crimes Unit. 

“Non-action is not going to be an option, we have to, we fail people here and we have to stop failing the public, I think they're going to run with the ball,” said Swanson.

Swanson, who is leaving the attorney general’s office, said she believes the Legislature will pick up on these recommendations and will have bipartisan support.  

The Peace Officer Standards and Training Board has already drafted a policy that would improve the way police are trained, how they gather evidence and interview victims. The method is known as trauma-informed interviewing, which acknowledges that the trauma of sexual assault can affect how survivors remember events.