High turnover, thin staffing and poor training plague police departments’ investigations of rapes and other sexual assaults
Bryan Schafer saw the struggle over and over in the Minneapolis Police Department: Too few investigators for too many rape cases, too many victims never getting justice.
Then he discovered it was not only a big-city problem.
When he became police chief in Hastings five years ago, Schafer learned that most of his officers had little or no training in investigating sexual assaults. Some said they were uncomfortable handling sex crimes and, given a choice, preferred a crime like burglary. An outside review of 86 Hastings sexual assault investigations showed the consequences: Less than one-quarter had resulted in criminal charges.
Schafer was shocked.
“How can we expect our officers to … do justice for the victim if they’re not trained to do so?” he said. “This is not like having your TV stolen.”
Scant or nonexistent training for police officers who investigate sexual assaults is a chronic problem across Minnesota. Most of the state’s largest law enforcement agencies don’t require it. Neither does the state board that oversees the licensing and training of police officers.
Constant turnover and thin ranks compound the problem.
In Minneapolis, the police sex crimes unit has had six different supervisors in the past decade, records show. Its six investigators handle twice as many cases as the 12 detectives in homicide.
St. Paul’s family and sexual violence unit has had five commanders in the past five years. And not one of the nine investigators who worked in the unit in 2013 are still there now, records show.
Rape victims and their advocates say they are not surprised. Law enforcement agencies that are overworked and undertrained help explain why so few rapists in Minnesota are caught or punished. Stubborn and corrosive myths about rape, they say, shadow many investigations.
Lack of training appears to be a critical factor in hundreds of sexual assault investigations reviewed by the Star Tribune.
In 2016, a young woman told St. Paul police she had been raped by a colleague who drove her home after an evening of drinks with co-workers. She waited nine months to report the incident, the case file shows, but she brought police crucial pieces of evidence: a sexual assault exam performed at a local hospital, plus text messages and e-mail from the accused man admitting he knew how drunk she was that night.
Her case landed on the desk of sex crimes investigator Sgt. David McCabe.
In his 10 years with the St. Paul Police Department, McCabe has taken more than 1,000 hours of law enforcement training, according to personnel records obtained by the Star Tribune. The courses included emergency driving, use of firearms, crowd control and managing homicide scenes.
Investigating a sexual assault? Not one hour.
The case file shows that McCabe never interviewed the woman’s co-workers about the night’s events or sought a search warrant for the man’s cellphone and computer. He never questioned the suspect in person, relying instead on a phone interview.
Ramsey County prosecutors, citing insufficient evidence, rejected the case.
The St. Paul Police Department said McCabe was not available for an interview, but spokesman Steve Linders defended the investigation. He said interviewing co-workers wouldn’t have helped because both parties acknowledged they were all intoxicated, and that the investigator didn’t appear to have probable cause for a search warrant. He said the nine-month reporting delay complicated the case and noted that the county prosecutor had no suggestion for further investigation. “It indicates that the investigator took the steps necessary to determine actually what occurred,” he said.
Whether additional training would have helped is unclear, Linders said, but the department has identified gaps in training and is working hard to address them. In addition, Linders said the department last week assigned a new commander to work exclusively with the sex crimes unit, but he didn’t dispute the high turnover of the past five years.
“We make assignment decisions based on experience, maximizing limited resources and making sure we are able to best meet the needs of both our community and our department,” he said.
A Star Tribune review of more than 1,200 Minnesota sexual assault files found hundreds of other cases in which detectives failed to do basic police work, such as collecting evidence or questioning suspects in person.
Police officials say training can be costly. Small departments in particular have a hard time fitting classes into packed work schedules and finding officers to cover for missing colleagues, especially when the state already requires training in other subjects, such as firearms use.
But research by law enforcement groups confirms the value of training. When officers have specialized training in sex crimes, victims are less likely to drop out of investigations and prosecutors are more likely to file charges, according to the Police Executive Research Forum, the profession’s leading policy arm.
Some states, such as New Jersey and Illinois, have adopted broad sexual assault training requirements for all police officers. Massachusetts has long required detectives to take a week long course to be certified as sexual assault investigators.
Minnesota requires police officers to hold at least a two-year college degree, but there are no classes devoted to sexual assault at some of the most popular programs, including Hennepin Technical College, Rasmussen College or Alexandria Technical & Community College. A Hennepin Technical College spokeswoman said instructors discuss sexual assault in various courses, such as “Police Report Writing & Interview,” and “Police Response and Human Behavior.”
In Hastings, Schafer sent all of his roughly two dozen officers to specialized training in sex crimes. Every new hire must complete at least three to four hours of outside training in the topic.
Smaller departments, too, struggle with staffing and training. Last spring, Ramsey County Attorney John Choi surveyed sex crimes detectives from six local jurisdictions while reviewing Ramsey County’s handling of sex crimes. Twelve of the 15 detectives said their units were not adequately staffed to do their best work.
Of the 15 detectives, seven had only one course on sexual assault before they began handling investigations. Five had none.
Training records obtained by the Star Tribune from 20 law enforcement agencies indicate that many detectives will take, over the course of their careers, some continuing-education coursework in sexual assault investigations. But records show that the courses can be as brief as a one-hour webinar, and their instructors do not have to be accredited or credentialed by the state.
Minnesota’s police licensing board has approved nearly 50 continuing education classes on sexual assault investigation. But since it began tracking participation two years ago, it has recorded only 29 of the state’s 10,500-plus active peace officers taking one.
Lt. Mike Martin had no experience handling sex crimes when he was assigned to run the sex crimes unit of the Minneapolis Police Department in 2013. He specialized in criminal gangs.
Any doubt Martin may have had about the value of high-quality training vanished after he took his detectives for instruction in a new investigative approach called the Forensic Experiential Trauma Interview (FETI).
In FETI training, officers learn that a trauma such as rape can scramble the victim’s recollection of an event and leave key details obscured. Detectives are taught to use open-ended questions or ask about sensory impressions to help unlock clues from a traumatic incident.
One of Martin’s detectives soon put the training to work.
A woman had reported being raped at gunpoint by a stranger as she left a south Minneapolis bar. There was no DNA match from her sexual assault exam, and she had trouble recalling details because she had been drinking.
The detective asked the woman to recall any unusual sensory impressions during the assault, such as sounds or smells.
“ ‘I just keep remembering the smell of newly mown grass,’ ” she told him.
Examining the Uptown alley where the rape happened, detectives found a yard where the grass had indeed been freshly cut. Searching the grass, they found a cellphone that ultimately led them to the suspect and helped win a conviction, Martin said.
Veteran law enforcement officials and victim advocates warn that training alone won’t produce better investigations. They say police executives must hold investigators accountable, commission outside audits of their work and change police culture.
Inver Grove Heights Police Chief Paul Schnell, who teaches courses on sexual assault, said that he’s struck by the number of officers in his classes who believe most rape reports are false.
“If I go and ask a group of cops what percentage of sexual assault reports are false, they’re going to tell me 60-90 percent,” Schnell said.
Most credible studies put the figure at 5 percent or less.
Laura Goodman, a retired deputy police chief of Brooklyn Center and a former ombudsman for the Minnesota Office of Crime Victims, called the root problem gender bias.
“When you have a culture that there are good victims and bad victims, it’s pretty easy to move to the next level, of not investigating cases,” she said.
As Martin sees it, the problem in Minneapolis was that sexual assaults didn’t command the same attention as other violent crimes. “Nobody calls in saying: ‘Hey, there’s a bunch of rapes occurring on my block, can you fix it?’ ” Martin said. “These are all the cases nobody talks about.”
Martin also said that running the sex crimes unit was considered a dead-end assignment for command staff in Minneapolis — a posting he got after falling out of favor with the department’s leadership. The unit’s location on a lower floor of City Hall signals its status, he said.
“Homicide gets the windows. Robbery gets the windows. Sex crimes — you get a cubicle and a closet, basically,” he said. “It was like the penalty box.”
Training wasn’t the only problem. Untested rape kits had piled up in the department’s property room to the point that the refrigerators were full. The unit also had no operations manual, a document that would list best practices and protocols for investigations.
And although many of his investigators were very talented, he said, they were drowning in cases. Martin said he reviewed new reports every morning, assigning a detective to every case where it was clear that a crime had been committed. But the huge number of reports and the unit’s size required him to choose carefully, he said, and if he chose wrong, no one above him reviewed the decision.
Martin said he did his best, but after a year in the unit he retired and took a job at the University of Minnesota.
His successor, Lt. Mike Sauro, said he didn’t see the job as a dead end. Sauro, a 40-year veteran who during his career was fired and rehired twice for using excessive force, said sex offenses are heinous crimes and that he enjoyed “locking up bad guys.”
Sauro, who has defended his unit’s handling of sexual assault investigations, said detectives worked cases hard.
Even so, the sheer volume of cases meant that his job amounted to triage, said Sauro and other department veterans. For his part, Sauro wouldn’t assign a case to a detective unless he believed it would succeed at trial.
That wasn’t his only reason for rejecting cases. He acknowledged, for example, that one case probably got set aside because the victim had a criminal history. And if victims make “enough bad decisions,” such as mixing prescription medications with alcohol, he said, there was little he could do to catch the perpetrator.
“If you assigned every case … the real victims would get no justice,” Sauro said.
Veteran sex crimes investigators say that such sorting, known as “redlining,” can endanger other women. Police files reviewed by the Star Tribune show dozens of rape cases in which police failed to investigate suspects even though they had been accused of, charged with or convicted of sexual assault in previous incidents — sometimes more than once.
“Police should not be trying the case on the street corner or at our desk and trying to figure out what a jury will think,” said Mike Davis, a retired detective from the police department in Vancouver, Wash. “That is for a prosecutor.”
Top officials at the Minneapolis Police Department acknowledge problems in its handling of sexual assault cases. They say they are working to address them.
But Deputy Chief Eric Fors, who oversees the investigations bureau that houses the sex crimes unit, disputed the charge that sexual assaults receive lower priority, or that supervising the unit is a dog house assignment for command staff.
“There could be nothing further from the truth,” Fors said in an interview.
“We want them to get justice. We want to see the right outcome, and we recognize that there have been instances where we haven’t been our best. But … we’re always moving forward, and our goal is to build the best system that serves them in the best way.”
Last month, department officials announced that they will hire a full-time advocate to guide victims through the complex course of an investigation.
That position had been under consideration for months but was approved only after the Star Tribune published a story in July documenting pervasive breakdowns in sexual assault investigations in Minnesota.
Fors said he also wants to increase the unit’s detective ranks, from six to at least 10, and get FETI training for the detectives who haven’t had it.
After the Star Tribune reported that some three-fourths of sexual assault cases were never forwarded to a prosecutor, Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman announced changes too; he plans to station one of his attorneys inside the Minneapolis sex crimes unit to collaborate with detectives and help develop evidence. His office is awaiting county board approval to fill that position.
The promised reforms will come too late for some victims.
Last June, a 37-year-old woman from Minnesota’s Iron Range reported being raped in a downtown Minneapolis parking ramp after a Twins game. Mandi, a married mother of two, asked that her surname not be used, but allowed the Star Tribune to review her police file.
She and a girlfriend had driven to the Twin Cities for the game and booked a hotel room for the night. They had a few drinks at the ballpark, and a few more afterward at a nearby bar, Cowboy Jack’s, where they chatted with a group of young men.
That’s where her memory fades, Mandi said in an interview. She said she woke up in a concrete stairwell, pinned to the steps, with one of the men raping her. In intense pain, she tried to push him off, she said. Passersby helped her back to her hotel, where she and her friend called police and went to the hospital for a sexual assault exam.
A few days later, as bruises formed across her body, she got a phone call from Minneapolis police investigator Sgt. Danyelle DeRose.
DeRose had joined the sex crimes unit just two days earlier. In a recording of the conversation obtained by the Star Tribune, DeRose seems to discourage Mandi from pursuing the case, saying there wasn’t enough evidence for prosecutors. “At no point did you actually say ‘Stop,’ ” she said.
When Mandi asks whether her sexual assault exam might show that she had been drugged, DeRose said that wasn’t likely.
“Just to let you know, I’m new to the unit, but the person who’s training me in — in five years has only had one case of drugs in the system,” DeRose said, according to the tape.
Still, Mandi and her husband demanded an investigation.
The case file shows that DeRose telephoned the suspect, who said she had made romantic advances, had led him to the parking ramp and had engaged in consensual sex.
DeRose also contacted the operators of the parking ramps, but employees told her they couldn’t find any surveillance video matching Mandi’s account.
DeRose closed the case, writing that she lacked the evidence to send it to county prosecutors.
Catherine Johnson, a former sex crimes detective in Kansas City, Mo., who now trains federal agents, said she felt sick as she reviewed the case for the Star Tribune. She noted that the detective appeared not to have pulled the parking ramp surveillance video on her own, never interviewed bartenders at Cowboy Jack’s, and did not question the suspect in person.
“Poor police work,” Johnson said. “I think the majority of what happened … is a result of poor training.”
Minneapolis police officials declined to discuss an individual case, but said that detectives strive to be straightforward with victims: “These can be very difficult and trying conversations for everyone involved,” the department said. At the same time, it said, the promised changes in its practices “will go a long way toward improving … service for victims.”
Mandi now realizes she won’t get answers about that night — or about why the police investigation left her feeling accused and unimportant. “It could have been handled better,” she said.
And she is resigned to the fact that her attacker will never be brought to justice.