With a flurry of Sharpies, the chiefs of every police department in Ramsey County, along with Sheriff Bob Fletcher, signed on Thursday to a collaborative effort to improve sexual assault investigations, with a focus on better training for law enforcement officers and more advocacy for assault survivors.
"I think we should give ourselves a round of applause, right?" said Ramsey County Attorney John Choi, who signed last.
The collaboration follows years of complaints that law enforcement was not aggressive enough in pursuing sexual assault cases and not sensitive to assault victims. Survivors said they often felt revictimized by interactions with police.
The collaboration commits all the agencies to what they are calling a victim-centered response to sexual assault cases. They pledged to train officers in handling such cases, including what are called trauma-informed interview techniques. Choi said there will also be a commitment to getting victim advocates involved as quickly as possible.
"Our vision is to have an advocate there, present for every interview and we have better connections with respect to that first investigative interview because that is really, really critical," he said.
PaHoua Vang of Ramsey Country's SOS Sexual Violence Services said seven full-time staff and 50 volunteers will be ready to help 24 hours a day.
"Part of our partnership is that with all of our Ramsey County hospitals for a sexual assault exam, we will respond with a sexual assault nurse within 30 minutes," she said.
The collaboration participants will also develop a better tracking system so cases do not slip through the cracks, and will work together to charge more sexual assault cases.
This agreement is the result of three year's work, begun after county officials launched the Start by Believing Campaign. It set the tone for investigations after someone reports a sexual assault.
"To our survivors, I want you to know that we believe you," said St. Paul Police Chief Todd Axtell. "We support you, and we will use every ounce of our energy and every resource of the 800 women and men of the St. Paul Police Department to hold offenders accountable and support you and your family through every step of the way."
Axtell said there is no higher priority now in the department than sexual assault cases. The department has added two more investigators and put more officers on the street to help respond.
The campaign appears to have been successful. The Ramsey County Attorney's Office reports a 75 percent increase since 2016 in the number of cases submitted by law enforcement for prosecution review. However, convictions have only increased by 17 percent from 2015 to 2018. County Attorney John Choi said he hopes that number will now increase.
Sarah Super, who has spoken publicly about her rape by an ex-boyfriend, endorsed Ramsey County's efforts at Thursday's news conference.
Her attacker was caught, convicted and sentenced to 12 years. Super said that conviction has helped her heal, but she warned that law enforcement can still do damage if they're not careful.
"The way in which law enforcement, prosecutors, judges and victim advocates do their jobs has been and will always be either hurtful or healing through the eyes of a victim," she said. "I strongly support every initiative you take to make amends for the hurt you have caused victims and to make this experience one that brings healing and validation as it did for me."
While there was clear excitement in the room at the creation of this collaboration, Choi said this is just a beginning, and it's likely more resources will be needed in the future.
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