The Fight to Redefine Safety in Texas

The Fight to Redefine Safety in Texas

Even as their budgets have climbed upward, police departments have deprived sexual assault units of proportional funding for decades. Today, advocates in Texas are trying to transform the state’s approach to sexual violence.

We Believe ATX celebrates a city council motion passed in favor of sexual assault survivors. (Courtesy of Survivor Justice Project)

Since law enforcement’s inception, its maintenance of public safety has been shaped by gender, race, class, and sexual orientation. These factors determine how an officer approaches your doorstep, how you are interrogated, how your cases are investigated or prosecuted, whether your evidence is tested, and ultimately whether violence done to you is deemed violence. In Texas, as in many states, sexual assault and its mostly female victims have largely been ignored despite the crime’s ubiquity.

A 2015 study found that over 33 percent of adult Texans have been sexually assaulted, and 65 percent of those survivors were sexually assaulted again. Trust in law enforcement is so eroded that less than 10 percent of survivors report their attacks. Part of this has to do with a familiar “boys will be boys” culture that stigmatizes survivors, but low reporting rates also point to a consistent failure to solve and prosecute cases. In 2011, the state Department of Public Safety uncovered a backlog of 20,000 rape kits in Texas—the worst in the nation.

Despite these abysmal safety statistics, police have insisted that as long as they wield a massive departmental budget, all Texans will be safe. Even the progressive state capital of Austin has a “long-standing culture of not asking too many questions about a police department,” says Austin City Council Member Gregorio Casar, “though it’s usually the biggest part of a city’s budget.”

Yet recently, local politicians have been working to expand the umbrella of safety to groups of people law enforcement has always left out in the rain. Austin City Council is conducting a thorough evaluation of how the city’s police department handles sexual assault investigations, with an eye to amending practices for the better. The review is not a surface measure, either; survivors’ advocate Kristen Lenau calls it “groundbreaking in its expansiveness.”

Last year, the city council also voted to restructure the police budget, after an Austin police officer unloaded three rounds at Mike Ramos, an unarmed Black and Latino man, just a month before Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin killed George Floyd. One-third of the police’s budget will shift to medical and mental health responders and to community programs that aid victims, people struggling with addiction, and the unhoused.

In response, Texas Governor Greg Abbott and Republican state lawmakers have threatened to take over Austin Police Department (APD), and the state senate recently passed retaliatory bills that chisel away at tax revenue and require voter approval for city budgets that reduce or reallocate police funding. Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick said the bill was passed “to be sure there’s not another Austin,” and his fellow Republicans have justified this meddling in local politics by charging Austin with dereliction in guarding public safety.

Progressives in Austin, however, are claiming that Texas was already failing in that duty—specifically, to ensure the safety of women and people of color. Survivors’ advocates have been working to reform the city’s handling of sexual assault for decades, but until recently they did not have the vigorous support of elected officials. Over the past five years, survivors and their advocates have brought this about by making the wide gaps in law enforcement increasingly visible. They are pushing politicians and voters to acknowledge the painful experiences of the vast number of Texas women left outside the city’s umbrella of safety.

 

Austin police kept thousands of untested rape kits lying in neat little rows. This visceral image reproduced in the press in 2016 and 2017 signaled to Austinites the deep failures of APD’s forensic lab. “Every single one of those boxes represents a person—and that person’s story and their trauma, and parts of their body—and it’s incredibly intimate,” says Lenau. “I don’t think you can even really articulate all of the emotions and all of the history symbolized by talking about a rape kit.” The untested kits make tangible police neglect of sexual assault, all the more powerful in our DNA-revering, CSI culture. Even people skeptical of survivors can identify with someone who has been deprived of the possibility of justice because police didn’t bother to test the evidence.

Advocates had been pushing the city and state governments to address the grievous rape kit backlog since it was first discovered in 2011, with slow and steady progress. A turning point came in 2016, when APD’s lab was closed following public exposure of dire procedural and staffing problems. Incoming kits had no place to go, at a time when increased collection capacity was leading to more new kits than ever. A new backlog began to form in addition to the old one that contained kits dating back to the 1990s. By March of 2017, APD’s DNA evidence backlog amounted to over 4,000 cases, most of which included rape kits. Advocates had to tell survivors it was unclear when or if they would ever get results. Meanwhile, the department continued to make blunders with evidence. In June, a year after the lab’s closure, local media broke the news that 849 untested rape kits were growing mold in APD’s evidence warehouse.

Because of the scope of the neglect, advocates decided to demand solutions in a more public manner than they had before. Emily LeBlanc, the co-chair of the Sexual Assault Response and Resource Team (SARRT), which coordinated efforts among survivor advocates, police, and the DA’s office, penned an open letter to the mayor, interim city manager, and APD Chief Brian Manley insisting on transparency and swift solutions in the name of public safety. Lenau linked up with Amanda Lewis and Ana Rodriguez De Frates, two advocates who had experience advising the city council as part of the Commission for Women, and formed the Survivor Justice Project (SJP). The goal was to “bring some visibility” to Austin’s problems with handling sexual assault and provide “opportunities for survivors who normally wouldn’t share information publicly to do that,” Lenau says. The new advocacy group began to educate the city’s Public Safety Commission, which serves an advisory role for the city council, about forensic analysis and rape kits so that it could ask police more detailed questions. SJP also teamed up with Casar, the young and energetic city council member from Lewis’s district, who had already begun asking questions about the police’s budget and priorities at the behest of survivors. He invited the local group to help the council write amendments to the city budget that targeted funding and accountability for rape kit testing. “When you’re sitting in front of a council member and talking about a rape kit that is older than he is,” Lenau says, “that really got his attention.”

Casar encountered denial from the city that it even had a problem—he was told that advocates were making “mountains out of molehills”—and he sensed it would be difficult to secure approval for the millions of dollars required to address the backlog. This funding issue is a high hurdle in the numerous cities across the United States that face the same problem. Even as police budgets have climbed upward, departments have deprived sexual assault units of proportional funding for decades. “I rightly knew that if I alone was just presenting these amendments, it may not be enough,” says Casar. “But really when survivors of sexual assault themselves organized and told their stories so bravely at City Hall and explained how the system had failed them, that brought us significant and unanimous support.” Under City Council pressure, APD reorganized its budget and the city obtained federal grants to address the backlog. But survivor advocates got their biggest win this February, when the council reallocated $12 million from APD into a separate Forensics Science Bureau that will be directly accountable to the city. Through their rape kits, survivors finally succeeded in making their erasure by law enforcement visible to Austin’s residents.

 

Although the rape kit backlog finally dwindled in 2018, the police’s neglect of DNA evidence was “just the tip of the iceberg” for survivors, Lewis says. “There were all these other issues that pointed to a lack of prioritization and a lack of care for the trauma that these folks have experienced.” That summer, a class action lawsuit against the City of Austin made public the chilling details of the plaintiffs’ cases. The crimes are horrifying: the accounts of rape include druggings, kidnappings, threats, home invasions, and beatings. Many plaintiffs said they had feared for their lives. Law enforcement’s response to these dehumanizing crimes was not the pursuit of justice. Instead, plaintiffs recounted that after lengthy delays—for one plaintiff, ten years—their cases were dropped, often without full interviews, tests, or even notification. By disbelieving and ignoring survivors, the justice system has been a psychological mirror to rape, denying survivors the validity of their personhood, reality, safety, and freedom once again. “Retraumatization from the system is a common occurrence,” Lenau explains, “and it’s a large part of why a lot of people don’t come forward.”

During the many years their cases were supposedly under investigation, the plaintiffs did not speak up about law enforcement’s failings for fear that it would jeopardize their cases. Even their advocates had to be careful about risking their jobs and organizational funding. But survivors began to gather around the lawsuit. What started as three plaintiffs grew to eight, then to twelve with the addition of a state lawsuit; according to plaintiff attorney Jennifer Ecklund, it will likely increase to over twenty this fall. Ecklund, who was introduced to the plaintiffs by her sister, SARRT co-chair Emily LeBlanc, recalls that on the day news of the lawsuit broke, over 200 survivors called to express gratitude and support. She and co-counsel Elizabeth Myers note that one of the most powerful effects of the lawsuit is how it has brought these survivors together. As they started to share their stories, plaintiffs saw parallels in each other’s accounts. “Until we had a collective group of folks who were all articulating the same types of experiences in the system, no individual survivor could understand that her experience was systemic,” Myers says. Plaintiff Mary Reyes recounts that when she joined the lawsuit (under the pseudonym Amy Smith) ten years after her assault, “I didn’t feel like I was alone anymore in this big fight. I always felt like something was wrong, because you grow up thinking these are people that are supposed to help you in the justice system. All these people, you’re supposed to automatically give them your trust, and they’re supposed to fight for you and do the right thing.”

Each plaintiff had been given a separate reason as to why her attacker was not being held responsible. Reyes, for example, was told that her rapist could not be tried because he had warrants in other counties, in addition to the city’s mishandling of the evidence. “The reason given by every level of the system is something that is individual to that specific case,” Myers says, “and until you can see all of the similarities . . . it’s almost impossible for survivors to understand that it’s literally not their fault that their individual case is not going forward.” The statistics highlighted by the lawsuit revealed just how widespread the system’s failure is. While around 1,000 sexual assault allegations are made in Austin’s county each year, only one made it to trial in 2017, nine in 2018, and seven in 2019. Many of these seventeen cases also involved guilty pleas in which the defendant pleaded down to a lesser offense. Reyes’s attacker was never tried and went on to rape two more women. The numbers show that his evasion of accountability is not an anomaly.

In the 1970s, feminists fought gender discrimination with lawsuits. Today the courtrooms have once again become a significant battleground for women’s rights. Ecklund built on legal precedents with her theory that sexual assault investigations, in which the majority of victims are women, are handled in a gender-discriminatory manner, and she sees a similar causal link between the 2008 lawsuit and Austin’s recent reforms. This is because court cases present a “threat of accountability,” Ecklund says, that “drives willingness to improve the system in a way that almost nothing else can.”

Few figures came under more fire from the lawsuit than Margaret Moore, then the DA for Travis County. Her response was to blame juries for her repeated failure to prosecute sexual assault cases involving acquaintances, intoxication, and lack of severe physical injury; she didn’t think juries would believe the survivors. Advocates began to urge Erin Martinson, formerly the head of the county attorney’s Protective Order Division and the crime victims program at the Texas Legal Services Center, to run against Moore in the next election. When Martinson and another challenger, José Garza, announced their candidacies a year later, they each called out Moore’s record on sexual assault. The race became a local media story. “The idea that the most progressive city in the state of Texas is being sued for civil rights violations is something that the city of Austin really doesn’t want,” Myers says. “I think that it does create additional pressure.” The lawsuit, and Moore’s defensiveness against it, became a significant factor in her reelection campaign. One that she lost to Garza.

 

Moore’s office was not the only law enforcement branch blindsided by an exposé in 2018. That fall, a national study conducted by ProPublica, Newsy, and Reveal from the Center for Investigative Reporting showed that Austin police closed two-thirds of their sexual assault cases using the exceptional clearance code, a loophole that allows departments to clear cases by claiming reasons beyond their control, even when they have enough evidence to arrest the suspect. Sergeant Elizabeth Donegan, the former supervisor of APD’s Sex Crimes Unit, told ProPublica that she was pressured to classify more rape cases as exceptionally cleared and to change the code on existing cases to boost the department’s statistics, but she refused on grounds that it “gives a false sense to the community that this case has been thoroughly investigated and it’s closed. It’s not truthful.” Donegan was subsequently transferred out of the unit in 2011, and the exceptional clearance rates shot up by over 50 percent.

With hard data clearly indicating a systemic problem and the pressure of national media attention, advocates expected Austin police to enact reforms. “The hope was, once you see this and you take appropriate action, we could be one of the best cities in the country to do this work,” Lewis says.

But in the face of yet another set of overwhelming numbers, APD gave excuses and defended its turf. Chief Brian Manley had always touted the department’s high clearance rates as evidence of its effectiveness and justification for increased funding. When confronted with the ProPublica report, Manley said he and Donegan had a “difference of opinion” and blamed survivors for the high exceptional clearance rate, saying that it was a result of their failure to cooperate with police. “It’s the unfortunate reality of sexual assault in this country,” he stated. Turning to the Department of Public Safety as a shield, Manley claimed incorrectly that DPS had confirmed the police’s classification process, before agreeing to a limited DPS audit that he expected would reaffirm the police’s stance. When the audit confirmed most of ProPublica’s findings, Manley made just one concession: a promise to retrain the officers in correct coding—as if that were the only problem.

Once again, survivors had to make their wounds visible to apply pressure. Local survivors aware of the report started to contact the Survivor Justice Project to ask how they could push for reform. Together with local and state advocates, they formed the We Believe ATX coalition, which created a list of demands, including an evaluation of the police department and requests for more resources. When they brought the list to City Council Member Alison Alter, they discovered her already at work on the matter, thanks to a constituent who had texted her about the ProPublica report. Alter has a teenage daughter, which she says “heightens one’s awareness.” Shortly after joining the council in 2017, Alter had begun to renegotiate the city’s public safety contracts to improve police accountability and fiscal sustainability. As a result, she felt knowledgeable about how to “move things forward.” Her recognition of survivors’ retraumatization and her relish for policy work motivated her to dig into the details of how the system functioned. The resulting city council resolution she cosponsored “was about reshaping the system and centering the processes on the victim and helping the victim heal,” Alter says, “as opposed to just about getting things rubber-stamped in the police department.”

While crafting the thorough twelve-page resolution, Alter’s team talked with advocates, city management, Chief Manley, and the Sex Crimes Unit about what was working and what wasn’t, and what steps the solutions would require. However, collaboration with law enforcement had a ceiling. While APD and the district attorney ultimately issued politic statements of support for the resolution, they privately fought against it until the council vote. Manley complained that the resolution made him look bad, and while the council wasn’t able to evaluate the DA’s office because it falls under the county’s purview, Moore complained that the evaluation intruded into her turf, too. Alter and the resolution’s other cosponsors, who included Casar, held firm. At the council session for the vote, survivors once again took the podium to relate their painful experiences. The resolution passed unanimously.

An extensive review of APD’s training, policies, and procedures began that fall, and the evaluators are currently reviewing 30 percent of the department’s inactive sexual assault cases from 2012 to 2020 and interviewing the survivors, advocates, and law enforcement involved. They project the evaluation will conclude in May of next year.

Alter, meanwhile, has begun to address the sex crimes underfunding that she uncovered in her research. She has introduced measures, often cosponsored by Casar, that have added more victim services counselors, increased funding for relationship violence prevention, paid for additional detectives in the Sex Crimes Unit, and expedited entry of the backlogged rape kits into the FBI’s national DNA database. Alter is clear that these changes on their own are by no means sufficient, and the city council, composed of eight women and two Latino men, is not done with reform. There is a “long way to go,” she told the Austin Chronicle, until “we’re not standing in a room where a third of the women” have been assaulted.

 

Despite all this pressure, law enforcement has shown no interest in changes that would lead to more equal treatment for survivors. The key to Austin’s most recent sexual assault reform stems from a realignment of power. In the past year, budget and leadership changes were brought about by a coalition of residents who believe they have the right to define their own safety.

As in the class action lawsuit, this solidarity was possible because of the similarities in the inequities people experienced within the system. During his campaign for district attorney, Garza, a former legal and political advocate for workers and immigrants, connected structural racism to sexual assault. “What I’ve seen, felt, and heard in conversations across the county is that the injustice that women are feeling and experiencing . . . is the same injustice that people of color are feeling, that working-class people are feeling,” he told the Austin Chronicle.

Survivors of sexual assault are disproportionately women of color, yet Lewis told the Chronicle last year that during her eight years of survivor advocacy in Austin, she never saw someone convicted for sexually assaulting a Black person. Looking for ways to connect their struggles, the Survivor Justice Project teamed up with the Austin Justice Coalition, a racial justice education and advocacy organization. In late 2019 and early 2020, they hosted a “Searchlight Series” of community conversations about the intersections of their causes. “That was the first time they had met survivor-focused activists or organizers that also weren’t being treated fairly through the system,” Lewis says. “I think there was a belief that if you’re calling the police or you’re trying to get help, things are working for you.” In response to racial justice advocates’ call for alternatives to police and incarceration, survivor advocates’ traditional focus on garnering more law enforcement resources and tougher punishments as the sole solution to sexual assault has also evolved.

After the city council resolved to reallocate a third of the police department’s budget last summer, it created the Reimagining Public Safety Task Force to explore how best to redeploy funds, engage with the community, and suggest “policy and cultural changes.” Racial equity and survivor advocates on the task force are taking a united approach in addressing unequal treatment and calling for adequate support for communities and survivors of violence.

Lewis chairs a task force work group that is exploring ways survivors can better access resources, both within and outside APD. The task force’s midyear report, delivered to the city council in April, recommends funding new community-level support for victim healing and case management. To aid survivors who report their sexual assault to the police, the task force suggests empowering APD’s Victim Services counselors, whom Lewis calls the “unofficial watchdogs” for survivors, by providing more funding and allowing their manager to report directly to the police chief or the city. To alleviate retraumatization at the hands of law enforcement, the task force recommends that every survivor’s first point of contact is a VS counselor who can inform them of their options, including interacting with their counselor, instead of police, for the entire investigation.

Coni Huntsman Stogner of SAFE, a survivor advocacy and service organization, is encouraged by the task force’s work groups focused on cultivating a “more compassionate police response” to a range of constituents, from survivors to those with disabilities. In March, the city council directed its first round of task force reforms at APD’s cadet academy, tackling what Casar calls an “us-versus-them mentality” common in police instruction across the country. This includes incorporating trauma-informed training throughout the academy’s curriculum and altering standard operating procedures of reaching out to survivors only once or twice before exceptionally clearing a case, or interviewing them in ways that can range from uncomfortable to violating. “We are better addressing the issues that have broken community trust: the issues around use of force, the issues around not better supporting survivors and finding justice for survivors, addressing paramilitary culture within our police department,” says Casar. He believes this can change police culture by producing new officers “more aligned with the values in the community.”

Collaboration between the racial and sexual assault justice movements has swept in new leadership at APD and the district attorney’s office this year. After taking office as DA, Garza immediately hired fellow challenger Martinson as director of the Special Victims Unit, and he has already announced new policies “designed to ensure that victims of interpersonal violence and complex trauma know that reporting their abuse or harm will not mean they are retraumatized, ignored, or accused of not being credible.” After gathering input from SARRT, the Survivor Justice Project, and other advocates and survivors, Garza issued a three-page document outlining new methods for better communication, counseling resources, appropriately trained prosecutors, safety assistance, community collaboration, grand jury education, and increased transparency. After vociferous calls for his resignation over his poor handling of Ramos’s shooting, Chief Manley retired in March, and the city is advertising for a new chief who will embrace reform. City Manager Spencer Cronk has pledged to listen to community input during the process and find a chief who “creates a culture of improvement and accountability, and is willing and able to lead the department in ways that lead to equitable public safety outcomes for all.” As it’s the city council that confirms the new chief, Casar is hoping they will require a pledge to implement the reform recommendations of the sexual assault evaluation.

This summer, the day before the class action lawsuit’s scheduled hearing in a federal appeals court, Garza reached a settlement with the survivors on behalf of the county, which includes an allocation of $250,000 for rape prosecution and survivor services in the county’s 2022 budget. Myers is pleased with how the county centered survivors in their acknowledgement, and news of this settlement has prompted more women to reach out to Ecklund and Myers. What remains to be seen is whether the city will settle their portion of the lawsuit on behalf of APD, Manley, and Manley’s predecessor Art Acevedo, who is now Miami’s police chief. “Unless the police also change, it won’t matter as much as it could,” Ecklund says. “If the investigations aren’t done well, or at least better, there won’t even be the right information or ability on the part of the DA to move forward with prosecution.” Casar told press that city lawyers plan to reopen negotiations, and he believes that the city owes the plaintiffs an apology, reforms, and a settlement. Acevedo, who was sued for sexual harassment while assistant chief of the California Highway Patrol prior to his ten-year tenure at APD, responded to Casar on Twitter by accusing the council member of being anti-police and endangering the people of Austin.

The plaintiffs are also on social media. Their awareness campaign, #WeAreAmysArmy, is pushing for the accountability that they have still not received from Acevedo, Manley, and APD. “I don’t understand why that’s so hard to do,” Reyes says. “Somebody has to say, ‘Yes, this is wrong. Yes, we did it. Yes, we’re going to fix it.’” Thirteen years on, Reyes says it remains a daily struggle to continue this work on top of her job and raising her six-year-old daughter. But, she says, the plaintiffs are not doing this just for themselves. “I don’t want to leave behind a world where my daughter’s not safe. It’s about human decency. Everybody is deserving of a voice and of feeling safe.”

 

The story of law enforcement reform in Austin is a hopeful one, one made possible by the courage and solidarity of survivors and the tireless work of their advocates, but it is unfinished. It is also a reminder of the heavy requirement our society imposes on people whose safety is not protected: that they scream out until their pain motivates change. In Austin, enough screams united across historically unprotected communities to form a powerful critical mass capable of unseating incumbent cultural myths—like the tenacious one that canonizes law enforcement as the guardian of public safety.


Laur Lewis Neal is a nonbinary writer, historian, and artist whose work interrogates how physical space is gendered and raced in community building and politics. Their previous article for Dissent is “Criminals and Culturemakers.”


Lima