The UT Police Department is updating its sexual assault investigation practices through the Interagency Sexual Assault Team. UTPD Chief David Carter, an executive board member of the team, helped present for the team at the Public Safety Commission meeting on Feb. 4 to update the public on the team’s progress.
Travis County District Attorney Margaret Moore created ISAT in September 2017 to increase coordination between law enforcement, forensic technicians and survivor advocacy groups to enhance effectiveness in responding, investigation and prosecution of adult sexual assaults in Travis County. Carter said sergeant Samantha Stanford and detective Eliana Decker, who specialize in sex crimes, are the UTPD representatives actively working within the team and with UT sexual assault survivors.
One important initiative, Moore said, is the victim feedback project, which may include working with the Institute of Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault within the Steve Hicks School of Social Work. This could include focus groups, surveys or in-person interviews.
Carter said historically, reports of sexual assault are consistently low in the U.S., so obtaining survivor feedback when survivors are comfortable is important.
“Are you comfortable in reporting to the police? Do you feel that the police have some kind of prejudice or bias against you?” Carter said. “Those are the kinds of things that we need to know if we’re serious about finding best practices involving sexual assault investigations moving forward.”
Ashka Dighe, an officer of UT’s chapter of It’s on Us, a campus sexual assault prevention organization, said the biggest barrier students face in reporting sexual assault is the fear they will be forced into an intense investigative process and have to relive their trauma.
“While that does help find perpetrators of sexual assault and rape and seems like you’re doing justice, it actually really harms the victim after they’ve already been harmed,” said Dighe, a neuroscience and health and society sophomore. “Sometimes people just won’t believe you.”
Carter said police cannot investigate without the cooperation of the victim, but UTPD can reopen cases once the victim is ready to continue within the time period set by the statute of limitations.
Darla Gay, senior planner for the DA’s Office, said UTPD is working on the intersection between Title IX reporting and reporting to the police because students should feel like they have places outside of the University where they can report sexual assault.
“We need to look more at … how victims who are using the Title IX reporting feel that their needs are being met,” Gay said. “We need this alternative route we give victims … because they clearly need support services.”
According to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, 91 percent of rape and sexual assault survivors are women.
“(Relating) to the survivors is really important, and since obviously women are the vast majority of the survivors, you want to make sure that police seem sympathetic and at least empathetic toward victims,” Carter said.
Carter said the collaboration between the team’s agencies allows better opportunities for students, especially those who report sexual assaults off campus.
“If we’re on the same page as these other police departments where a student might actually live, then we’re talking the same language and we’re sharing information,” Carter said. “We’re able to get them the help they need and more likelihood for a successful prosecution so that justice can be served.”