Interview with Sgt. Liz Donegan of the Austin Police Department

Sgt. Liz Donegan of the Austin Police Department.

Late in November, I interviewed Sgt. Liz Donegan of the Austin Police Department’s Sex Crimes Unit about her groups’ response to sexual violence, their new campaign, “We Believe,” as well as Austin’s elimination of its rape kit backlog.

Sarah Tofte: How did you decide to become a police officer?

Sgt. Liz Donegan: I have always wanted to be a police officer, every since I was a little girl. I have four sisters and all of them will tell you that’s all I ever talked about when I was younger. It sounds cliche, but I really wanted to help people and I thought being a cop was an exciting way to do that. It took me a while to get around to becoming a police officer. I had served in the Army after leaving college. When my tour was up, I moved to Texas and began working at the Sheriff’s Department. I worked as a corrections officer and then was hired on with the Austin Police Department. I did not have any reservations about working within policing, as I had worked in many male dominated fields previously. I believed if I worked hard and it showed in my work then I would earn the respect of the other officers.

ST: Would you briefly describe the history of the Austin Sex Crimes Unit?

LD: The Austin Police Department has had a sex crimes unit since 1978. Previously, the Homicide unit was responsible for investigating sexual assaults. Actually, my administrative assistant, a retired APD officer was the investigator, the sole investigator assigned to the unit. We now have eleven detectives. I became the Sergeant of the unit in 2002.

ST: Starting in 2004, the Austin Police Department’s Sex Crimes Unit decided to overhaul the way it handled its cases. Would you talk about how those reforms originated?

LD: The training that I received when going through our police academy was geared solely toward stranger sexual assault. We were not trained in dealing with non-stranger sexual assault at all. In most departments across the country that is typical even today. To a certain extent, I have been trying to undo the training that I (and other officers) received. The training was helpful to a point, but it did not address the majority of sexual assaults we respond to. It also reinforced the myths about sexual assaults and who commit them – (strangers). When officers respond to and investigate these cases, they typically have little to draw on from their training.

As a society, we have been conditioned to the common misperception that sexual assault is typically perpetrated by strangers. We have bought into what we are being fed by the media and, to a lesser degree, what is being reported within law enforcement as “real” sexual assault. Then we wonder why officers sometimes don’t respond appropriately. I absolutely believe that as officers are educated about sexual assault, that they will do the right thing.

Why and how we changed the way we respond to and investigate sexual assault is directly tied back to training. I had attended a training about a year after having taken over the unit. I met Joanne Archambault, who is the Director of End Violence Against Women International (EVAW) and trains on non-stranger sexual assault. I realized at the training just how much my own bias and prejudice about sexual assault victims played into my investigative and supervisory decisions in cases. When I spoke with her about how we investigate cases, she told me honestly: You are not doing what you need to be doing for victims. That really took me aback – here I was the supervisor of the unit, and told that I was not doing the right thing for victims of sexual assault. I began to understand the ways in which my treatment of victims could re-victimize them.

So, when I returned we began a total overhaul within the department and the unit – a complete paradigm shift, from an emphasis on stranger sexual assault to an emphasis on non-stranger sexual assault. We had to learn to look beyond the initial, reflex judgment we had typically been making on a case. I learned that non-stranger sexual assault cases were extremely complicated, and not as simple as the stranger cases. And that non-stranger sexual assault cases can be difficult to prove. However, with a good detective, a smart detective who understands the psychology of sexual assault victimization, you can move forward with prosecution and hold perpetrators accountable for their crimes. 89% of cases that come to us are non-stranger sexual assault cases. They deserve and receive our full attention.

ST: So, it sounds like you had to overhaul the entire unit. What were some of the early challenges?

LD: It was a slow process initially. I had to deal quite a bit with detectives’ frustrations with how many “gray” areas there are in (non-stranger) sex crimes cases. The non-stranger sexual assault cases are incredibly difficult to investigate, because you have to get beyond the consent issue and figure out how to make your case by following the evidence and by thinking outside traditional policing. After having been educated myself, I realized that for these cases to be investigated appropriately, given how complicated they are, we needed the best detectives to work these cases. And so I slowly weeded out those detectives who didn’t get it or wouldn’t get it. I actively recruited those whom I thought were some of the hardest working, smartest, most committed detectives I could get my hands on.

I also had to work hard to impress upon my detectives that they play an integral role in victim’s healing. The way they handle the investigation and interact with the victim can positively – or negatively – impact a victim’s life. Our society says that, after murder, rape is the most important crime. But within many police departments that is not always the case. In the “old days”, sex crimes was not necessarily considered a good assignment. So, to effect change and the way the unit was viewed, how the detectives viewed themselves, I recruited detectives who were open to changing the way we investigate sexual assault cases. They had to be taught that they were important, that the work was important. They needed to feel valued in every way.

The really big push to effect change within Austin happened in 2004, when our SARRT (Sexual Assault Response and Resource Team) applied for a scholarship to improve our response, investigation and prosecution of non-stranger sexual assault. It was called the “Making A Difference” project. EVAW International and the Donner Foundation established this national project in which SARRT’s from across the country would apply for this three day intensive training. Eighty-eight teams applied; only eight were chosen, including us. We came together in San Diego and discussed the issues we were seeing nationally. We came up with ideas, then went back to our communities and implemented them.

We continue to make enhancements to our approach to sexual assault that are driven from this early “Making a Difference” project — which is great! We are fortunate because most of our key players (in the SARRT) are still actively involved. These reform efforts addressed changes within the disciplines. It wasn’t just the police department that was making changes — the advocates, the SANE’s, the district attorney’s office also made changes. We all came together to improve the service we provide to victims. Working collaboratively is the only way to go in my opinion. You have to have open dialogue with the other team members on your SARRT. We all want to hold perpetrators accountable for their crimes, but at times we get caught up in just doing our thing instead of remembering we can only be successful if we work as a team. Getting the right people on your SARRT, people open to change, is critical if you are really committed to making a difference.

Sgt. Donegan surrounded by the members of the Austin Police Department's Sex Crimes Unit.

ST: Part of the overhaul involved creating a public messaging campaign and slogan for the department: "We Believe." Would you talk a bit about why you chose that phrase to represent your department?

LD: We chose this phrase because believability is the number one reason victims don’t come forward. Victims don’t report to police because they think we will not believe them, or we will blame them. If we can send the message to the community that, if you are sexually assaulted, and you come to us, we will believe you, then I think we can encourage more victims to come forward. All too often victims’ fears are well founded. We want to change that here in Austin.

Part of the “Making A Difference” project involved the gathering of data. We were very interested in why so many victims do not stay within the judicial system after having made an initial police report. A significant percentage – 40% – of non-stranger sexual assault victims were leaving the system, which was disturbing to me because we think – or I thought – we are doing a pretty good job here in Austin. We realize we have to work even harder at making victims feel safe and valued while working through a judicial system that is not victim friendly. The “We Believe” campaign and message was something we wanted to get across to the community, and also to the officers responding to these calls. At the police academy, our cadets are now taught in the academy the incredible influence they have when they first interact with a victim. That interaction will often influence significantly if a victim stays or leaves the process.

We have made the commitment to do everything possible to make a victim feel like she or he has made the right choice in coming forward to report the crime. We are currently looking at ways to keep the victims within the system, and what can we change within our department to get victims to stay.

To get back to why we chose “We Believe” as our theme, it’s for the victims. We know sexual assaults are happening out there and that most go unreported. Why? Because of that fear. The words “We Believe” just resonate so deeply to that point. It’s simple—we believe you, and you are safe with us.

ST: What change have you noticed in your officers since you began your program?

LD: I think the best way to highlight the change is to give you an example. We recently had a case in which the victim said a stranger had raped her. When we looked at the crime scene, her description of the assault just didn’t make sense. The detectives brought her in and interviewed her, but it just wasn’t adding up. I think in the old days, without our training, we might have dismissed the case then and there, thinking it didn’t happen. My detective continued investigating the case, because he believed she had been raped, and had a theory as to who committed the rape. Finally, I think she felt safe or comfortable enough to tell him exactly what happened. It was a complicated case, involving lots of self blame, etc…and I think to a certain extent this victim wanted to be a “better victim” for us. Victims often buy into the same myths that the larger society does. In this case, our detective’s training and understanding of the complexity of these cases put a rapist in jail. I was really proud of him, of his work and ultimately, of the service he provided to the victim.

And this is the point I make to my team over and over again: Whenever there is a question of the validity of the case, of what actually happened, and we think we should unfound a case, we better be sure we have the facts to support doing this. Just like we have to have the facts to support a founded case. We know that false reports happen in sexual assault. They happen in all crimes. The myth is that a significant number of sexual assaults are false reports and that is simply not true.

ST: What is the most difficult thing about investigating sexual assault cases?

LD: I think one of the most difficult things is the frustration detectives experience with the overwhelming complexity of the cases and the system itself. The cases that involve the defense consent – which are the majority – are incredibly difficult to investigate. I think it would be easy to throw your hands up and say the case is unsolvable. You have the victim saying one thing, the suspect another – you have no idea how to get to the bottom of this. Very very difficult cases that take an extraordinary amount of time to investigate and extraordinary investigators to solve them.

I had to re-train myself and my staff to focus on the perpetrator’s behavior and credibility, rather than focus so much investigative energy on the victim’s behavior and credibility. I think sexual assault is one of the few crimes where we put so much scrutiny on the victim first, and then, only if she has passed our own internal bias test do we proceed to investigate the case. Why are we not focusing more on the perpetrator? What about their actions and their behavior? We all too often make the victim feel like she is culpable, responsible for her sexual assault. And she is not. The perpetrator is wholly responsible for rape. Wholly responsible.

ST: What role does rape kit testing play in your investigations?

LD: In 2004, we discovered that we had a rape kit backlog of hundreds of untested kits. We hired two retired detectives to go through the reports to determine if the kits needed to be tested. As a result, we made some cold cases. As part of our Making A Difference reform efforts, we implemented a policy that every kit collected from a victim, when the victim has agreed to move forward, and when we can get a consensual partner elimination sample, will be sent to the lab for testing. We are very fortunate to have our own lab. Before, we used to send our kits to the state crime lab, and we would have to wait for months and sometimes years to get a result back. It was frustrating to say the least. So, when we got our own lab, we knew we would have the capacity to test as many kits as we could, and that is what we do. We test all of the founded cases (kits) because you never know what you will find, even if the case cannot go forward with prosecution. Most rapists are serial, so this is extremely important for being able to solve future crimes. It’s one more step in the process of showing victims that we are doing all we can to solve their case.

ST: Is there anything else you’d like to add?

LD: I just want to say that investigating sexual assault cases is a continuing process. It is still a process for me. I am still learning. I remind myself every day that I have to take each case at face value, and allow the evidence to lead me wherever it is going to take me. If you adhere to that philosophy, you will figure out what occurred. You will do your best by the victim who comes to you in trust and hope. Ultimately you will hold perpetrators accountable for their crimes and victims will be heard.

To learn more about the Austin Sex Crimes Unit, visit the their website.

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