Working group's recs for improving sexual assault investigations — better communication, shorter process

One of three groups submitting guidelines to lawmakers

Sloane Martin
December 18, 2018 - 1:48 pm
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Following the Star Tribune's reporting exposing glaring, systemic failures in sexual assault investigations and prosecutions, Attorney General Lori Swanson's working group released its report which will be sent to state lawmakers when they begin the new legislative session in January. It's one of three groups submitting guidelines for them to consider.

The 20 recommendations from Swanson's working group in a 47-page report unveiled Tuesday, three months after it first met, focus on shoring up the investigation process, expanding communication between investigators and prosecutors, and taking what they call a trauma-informed approach to supporting victims. 

Included in the report directed at lawmakers, law enforcement agencies, prosecutors and the Minnesota Board of Peace Officer Standards and Training is changing state law to allow advocates access to contact information for victims who make police reports, ensuring each law enforcement agency has a sexual assault policy while improving training on both working with victims and conducting a thorough investigation, and for county attorneys to "consider prosecuting more difficult sexual assault cases even when evidence to prove a conviction beyond a reasonable doubt is less than certain."

Swanson's group featuring 10 people from the areas of law enforcement, victim advocacy, medicine and law were tasked over the last three months with brainstorming ways to clean up a system that has let down too many survivors of sexual assault. 

Inver Grove Heights Police Chief Paul Schnell was vocal in admitting law enforcement has to do more.

"It's essential that we begin to focus on rebuilding the trust of victims," he said. "We have to remember that oftentimes these are women, children, and those who are most vulnerable. I think it's important that they understand that there is a system, a network in our state that is here to address these issues, to investigate them thoroughly, and hopefully they'll find some sense of justice, whatever that ultimately looks like."

Representatives from victims advocacy groups say the report is a good start, but there's more room for comprehensive reform.

"We need to really start by agreeing that we believe a crime has been committed in the same manner that we believe other crimes when they are reported," Teri Walker McLaughlin, executive director of the Minnesota Coalition against Sexual Assault, said. "From that we have a basis to go forward."

"I hope that there is solid implementation of this and that we never forget that we have a broad range of victims," Nicole Matthews, executive director of the Minnesota Indian Women's Sexual Assault Coalition, said. "We don't all look the same. It's not a one-size-fits-all approach and we can never take a one-size-fits-all approach in any report or recommendation."

Members of the working group were optimistic, but say it will take cooperation from multiple levels of the criminal justice system, as well as local governments, for these recommendations to be successful.

"The report properly recognizes, and it's important for all of us to recognize, Rome wasn't built in a day and change doesn't happen overnight," Swanson said.

The legislature reconvenes Jan. 7. Two more separate groups involving law enforcement and the POST Board are also making recommendations.

In a statement, POST Board Executive Director Nate Gove provided an update on their work:

“I’m encouraged by the work of these groups. They are presenting recommendations to our Training and Standards sub-committees that include things like developing a field guide for officers responding to sexual assaults and training on new research about how trauma affects sexual assault victims... It’s our role to help ensure officers are prepared to help their communities. We are committed to recommending changes to lawmakers that are thoughtful, impactful and successful.”

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