Lawmakers and law enforcement leaders across the political spectrum expressed outrage Monday at reports of breakdowns in the investigation of sexual assault in Minnesota and called for measures to guarantee justice for women who report rape.
“These stories of sexual assault are horrific,” said state Sen. Warren Limmer, R-Maple Grove, chairman of the Senate Public Safety Committee. “It’s indefensible that cases like these, with ample evidence, would go uninvestigated.”
The comments came a day after the Star Tribune published a special report documenting pervasive failings in the way Minnesota law enforcement agencies investigate sexual assault. The analysis, which examined more than 1,000 sexual assault reports from 2015 and 2016, found hundreds of cases in which police departments failed to interview witnesses, collect evidence or even assign detectives to rape cases.
At a Capitol news conference, state Rep. Erin Murphy said she would make the findings an issue in her campaign for governor this fall. Murphy, a St. Paul DFLer, called for improved training of police investigators and legislation to ensure that all rape kits are tested, among other changes.
Several other gubernatorial candidates also called for reform. U.S. Rep Tim Walz, a DFLer from southern Minnesota, said he spoke with a constituent last year who said she, too, faced multiple obstacles in trying to report a rape.
“When survivors of sexual assault courageously come forward, they deserve a process that provides them with respect, dignity and justice. Unfortunately … this is all too often not the case,’’ Walz said.
Minnesota Attorney General Lori Swanson, a third DFL candidate for governor, said in a statement: “Failing to interview witnesses or follow up on key evidence is simply inexcusable. When women report sexual assault, it must be taken with the utmost seriousness and fully investigated.’’
Former Gov. Tim Pawlenty, running on the Republican side of the governor’s race, said he would like to see the state’s police licensing board develop statewide standards for sexual assault investigations.
“Law enforcement agencies and prosecutors need to focus on better investigation and prosecution of these violent offenders,’’ Pawlenty said.
Gov. Mark Dayton said he admired the courage of the women who stepped forward to describe their assaults and their encounters with police.
“They should not have to endure more traumas, caused by the indifference or inaction of people responsible for bringing those vile offenders to justice,” Dayton said in a statement.
State Rep. Nick Zerwas, an Elk River Republican who sits on the House Public Safety Committee, called the newspaper’s findings “shocking” and said he has already started researching possible legislation.
Zerwas said he wants to examine whether police need additional training and resources for sexual assault investigations. Sex assaults are some of the most challenging crimes to investigate, said Zerwas, who has worked as a forensics examiner at the Anoka County Crime Lab.
Rep. Dave Pinto, a St. Paul DFLer who also sits on the House Public Safety Committee, said he would press the state’s police licensing board to enact a model protocol for responding to sex assaults. He also wants to consider increasing funding for investigations.
Pinto applauded the women who came forward to tell their stories in the Star Tribune report. “I was really devastated by the stories they told and appalled by the findings in general,” Pinto said.
In St. Paul, City Council Member Rebecca Noecker said she called Police Chief Todd Axtell on Monday afternoon to discuss his department’s handling of rape investigations.
“I think it’s extremely disturbing to hear that victims are coming forward and are not being taken seriously,” Noecker said.
Noecker said she and Axtell discussed changes the department made earlier this year, particularly the hiring of two additional investigators, after a study by the Ramsey County Attorney’s Office identified several shortcomings in the investigation and prosecution of sexual assault cases in the east metro.
Noecker said that although she felt “satisfied that we have taken steps in the right direction,” she wants to see if the city could devote more resources to solving sex crimes, a sentiment echoed by Council Member Chris Tolbert.
St. Paul police spokesman Steve Linders said all eight of the department’s investigators have completed training with a psychologist who specializes in sex offender behavior and with the Midwest Children’s Resource Center on secondary trauma. The investigators are scheduled to complete an additional three-day training session in November.
Linders said St. Paul police assign all cases to an investigator, which didn’t happen in several other cases reviewed by the Star Tribune.
Council Member Dan Bostrom, a retired St. Paul police officer who spent 1 ½ years investigating sex crimes, said hiring more investigators will help solve some of the problems reported by rape victims. But, Bostrom said, investigators also have to do better at keeping survivors informed about the progress of their cases.
“I worked in a lot of units in the police department, and sex crimes without a doubt, with homicide, is among the most difficult,” Bostrom said. “It’s labor intensive.”
Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey said he would address the issue in an interview with the Star Tribune on Tuesday.
U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., said in a statement, “We can and should do more for sexual assault victims, including passing the Abby Honold Act, which would help ensure law enforcement has the resources and training to respond to victims.”
The act, co-sponsored by Walz and Republican U.S. Rep. Tom Emmer, would provide federal grants to train investigators in the best techniques for interviewing rape victims. It is named for Abby Honold, a University of Minnesota student who was raped in 2014 and became an advocate for better police response.
A spokeswoman for U.S. Sen. Tina Smith said Smith has made combating sexual violence a priority in her work, supporting adequate for funding for the 1994 federal Violence Against Women Act and introducing legislation to help American Indian tribes prosecute sexual violence. In a statement, Smith added: “It’s unacceptable that survivors face so many obstacles in seeking justice.’’
Ramsey County Attorney John Choi said he would also support reform, though he warned it could take time. “This is a start, because we’re calling out what isn’t happening, and asking the public: Is this really what you want?”
State Sen. Sandy Pappas, DFL-St. Paul, also a member of the Public Safety Committee, said she was “shocked and outraged” by the newspaper’s findings and said she expects her committee to address the issue in the next legislative session.
“It was just amazing to me,” Pappas said. “This seemed so ... 20 years ago.”
Staff writer Chao Xiong contributed to this report.