The Houston Police Department is improving the process for handling sexual assault cases by providing specialized training for investigators and adding a justice advocate as the result of ongoing research being directed by a multidisciplinary team of stakeholders.
Through a National Institute of Justice grant, Sam Houston State University and the University of Texas at Austin are studying the large number of untested sexual assault kits and developing strategies to address the issue for law enforcement, victims and prosecutors. It is one of two studies funded nationwide to develop model protocols in sexual assault cases.
“Rape kits are just one piece in a large puzzle,” said Dr. William Wells, an associate professor at SHSU College of Criminal Justice. “These crimes are very complicated and the investigation and prosecution of these cases are also complicated. We are taking a comprehensive look at more than just the rape kits. Our objective is to improve many parts of the process, including evidence auditing, training, investigations, and victim notification.”
Houston was chosen as one of two sites to study the issue. As a result of the research, several new initiatives will be introduced in the Houston area to improve the investigation and prosecution of sexual assault cases. Among these are:
- Delivering specialized training for investigators in sexual assault cases
- Creating a justice advocate position to serve as a bridge between sexual assault survivors and investigators
- Providing additional resources for law enforcement to investigate cases
- Supporting services provided by the Houston Area Women’s Center and by Sexual Assault Nurse Examiners
"The Houston Police Department is committed to improving and enhancing our investigative response to survivors of sexual assault from the moment of outcry to the final judicial conclusion of the investigation,” said Capt. Mary Lentschke, of the Houston Police Department’s Special Crimes Division. “It has been our goal to utilize the opportunities provided by the grant funding from the National Institute of Justice to not only review and enhance our investigative strategies and evidentiary processes, but to also “test drive” new strategies, such as the creation of a “justice advocate” position within the Adult Sex Crimes Unit.”
The first in a series of specialized trainings for investigators in sexual assault cases was held on March 27 at Texas Southern University for up to 300 law enforcement officers from Houston area agencies. The program, “Not Making Sense is Traumatic: Neurobiology of Trauma,” was led by Dr. Rebecca Campbell of Michigan State University, one of the foremost researchers on violence against women. The program explained how the brain responds to trauma and the impact of trauma on victims participating in the criminal justice system. Through resources provided by the grant, the Houston Police Department will deliver additional training programs on specific issues related to the investigation of sexual assault.
Sam Houston State University is teaming up with the Houston Police Department to produce a series of “how-to” reports that share lessons learned about tackling key issues in sex assault cases. For those departments that have untested rape kits, one report will discuss the audit process that was used to determine what to do in those cases. In addition, a second report will describe the unique structure of the Houston Police Department’s juvenile sex crimes unit, which serves minors and young children.
“Sexual assault is devastating – for survivors and for our community,” said Sonia Corrales, Chief Program Officer for the Houston Area Women’s Center. “Our priority as a partner on this task force is to ensure the protection of survivors’ rights, secure justice for them and their families and to hold offenders accountable for their crimes. Creating a solid and sustainable plan that awards proper and ongoing attention and resources to rape cases so that survivors’ rights and well-being are protected is our ultimate goal.”
The study also will continue to investigate the results that occur when untested rape kits are screened and tested and members of the project team will provide presentations across the country on the various aspects of their findings. Members of the Sam Houston State University research team, including several graduate students, have presented results to the Houston Police Department and at the meetings of the American Society of Criminology.