UTPD Sexual Assault Investigation Specialists focus on supporting assault victims

Meghan Nguyen

To improve support for sexual assault victims, UTPD’s Sexual Assault Investigation Specialists undergo training to take a more empathetic and understanding approach in helping survivors get through their traumatic experiences.

Only 9 percent of all sexual assault cases are reported in Texas, and it is the most underreported violent crime in the U.S., according to the 2017 Cultivating Learning and Safe Environments Survey. UTPD’s Sexual Assault Investigation Specialists receive specialized training to focus on how to work with victims and reduce the stigma attached to reporting sexual assault. 

When a student reports a sexual assault to UTPD, the specialists, Sergeant Samantha Stanford and Detective Eliana Decker, conduct an interview with the victim, make sure the student’s medical needs are met and provide information on available resources. Evidence, including video footage or witness statements, is collected, and a follow-up interview with the suspect is conducted. Once all interview statements and evidence are collected, UTPD presents those facts to the district attorney’s office to determine whether or not the case can move forward. 

Stanford said one of the goals of UTPD’s Sexual Assault Investigation Specialists is to make sure victims know they’re believed and heard. 

“We’re focusing not only the facts of what happened but also on addressing (victims’) needs, so they can hopefully get some assistance moving forward,” Stanford said. “We really try to focus on how they’re feeling, how the incident has impacted them and try to help them through that.”

In April 2016, Stanford was moved into the Criminal Investigations Unit with the intention of receiving training in sexual assault and was later joined by Decker. In June, UTPD Chief David Carter, Stanford and Decker joined the Interagency Sexual Assault Team, or ISAT. 

ISAT was established by Travis County District Attorney Margaret Moore in fall 2017 to bring together police agencies from Travis and surrounding counties that are committed to enhancing the sexual assault criminal investigative process. 

“It’s important to me to have detectives that students can relate to, and that’s how this all came about,” Carter said. “Our sexual assault investigative specialists are people that fully comprehend the impact of trauma and know how not to act in a judgmental way, allowing the victim to remain in control.”

Despite all the changes, public health sophomore Elizabeth Contreras said UTPD still has more work to do to improve how it handles sexual assault cases. 

“I think an anonymous online reporting system accessible only to UT students would be valuable, or at least one where the reporter has an option to not be followed up with by the police or administration” Contreras said.

Through her position as a Sexual Assault Investigation Specialist, Stanford said she ultimately hopes to get justice for victims and help them move on. 

“Hopefully, we can make (sexual assault responses) very systematic and make sure everyone’s on the same page, so we can find the best practices and see better resolutions, higher prosecution rates and higher arrest rates,” Stanford said.