Lawrence police plan to roll out special victims unit, describe changes underway in sex crime investigations and training
photo by: Mackenzie Clark
Lawrence police are planning a spring launch of a special victims unit to investigate sex crimes — a change that comes after the department was drawn into controversy in the fall over the handling of a rape report.
Other changes in procedure now require LPD’s investigations division to review all sex crimes, rather than the past practice that allowed patrol officers to investigate certain types of sex crimes, a police department leader recently told the Journal-World.
A new policy also creates a more strict definition of when a rape or sex crime report can be considered unfounded by the department.
That change gets to the heart of the most recent controversy. Lawrence police came under scrutiny in the fall for their role in a Douglas County District Court case in which a University of Kansas student was charged with filing a false rape report. Though the charges were eventually dismissed, advocates for sexual assault victim-survivors railed against the case for its chilling potential, should others decide not to report an assault fearing that they wouldn’t be believed or would be charged with a crime themselves.
LPD leaders said they hope the changes alleviate some of those fears by putting survivors in a position where they can come in, make a report and work with Lawrence police to hold offenders accountable.
“I think that’s what we all want, and we want to do it in the most respectful and constructive way for a survivor so that we don’t cause additional trauma,” Capt. Adam Heffley, who supervises LPD’s investigations division, said. “That’s the goal.”
Special Victims Unit
LPD currently has three officers assigned to a specially trained unit that investigates crimes against children, which often include sex crimes, Heffley said. But the department does not have an equivalent for crimes involving adults, and that has drawn some public criticism.
Heffley said it’s common for larger police departments to have a special victims unit that handles these types of crimes, but LPD has never specialized to that level before. He’s planning to change that. He said talks about an SVU began last spring as the department was considering its annual budget requests, and it progressed to the model he’s pushing now within the last month or so.
Heffley said this week that he had a proposal in hand and the main holdup was lining up a supervisor. He said that person will likely be a sergeant because he wants someone who will be on the frontline of these investigations, providing hands-on guidance.
“We’re trying to make sure that the unit’s set up for success and has the appropriate level of supervision,” he said. “… It needs its own supervisor so that somebody can pay very close attention to what’s passing through there, the cases and investigations.”
Because of the size of LPD, Heffley said the SVU will handle crimes against both adults and children. That way the unit will be able to keep between four and six investigators trained and available. That group will comprise a combination of detectives and specially trained officers, he said.
Heffley said he wants the SVU to launch before an April training session by Tom Tremblay, a national expert in trauma-informed investigations who has been commissioned by the Douglas County District Attorney’s office to provide training to area prosecutors and law enforcement officials.
“My goal is not to wait on him to set everything up or tell us how to set things up, but I would like to have him weigh in on what we have up and running to make sure that we’re doing the best we can,” Heffley said.
He is also looking to add a victim-witness coordinator who would maintain contact with survivors and make sure they’re getting what they need throughout an investigation and through any court processes. The departmentwide position would not be entirely devoted to cases the SVU is handling, but he said he hoped that person would devote a large portion of their time to them.
Patrol officers versus investigators
In general, LPD’s roughly 80 patrol officers are the first to respond to any calls that dispatch receives. They are able to investigate certain sex crimes, such as lewd and lascivious behavior or someone peeping into a window or exposing themselves in a park, for instance, Heffley said.
However, the recent changes in procedure mandate that LPD’s investigations division review and investigate all of these types of cases to ensure that everything was done consistently and that they’re not missing something, he said.
“We still want a supervisory review by Investigations Division to determine that we’ve done everything appropriately and if there’s any information that may bleed into another case, or any kind of multiple incidents, that there’s somebody who sees the larger scope of what’s going on,” he said.
For reports of sexual assaults, Heffley said that typically a patrol officer will respond first to collect “the minimal information that’s allowable in order to get an understanding of what’s occurred without getting into great detail of a victim interview.” Then the trained investigators will step in and take over, he said; if they’re not working at the time, they can be called in.
Heffley said that in some cases, a detective might not show up right away; however, one would either review the case or be assigned to it in a timely manner based on when the incident occurs and how contemporaneously it’s reported.
Alleged false reports
As the Journal-World has reported, advocates for sexual assault survivors — including a group of KU social work students who started a letter-writing campaign following the false report case in the fall — have voiced concerns about how Lawrence police and the Douglas County district attorney’s office have handled sexual assault cases.
The students’ letters said the false report case demonstrated a “concerning lack of crucial knowledge” about trauma and the range of behaviors that survivors might exhibit after an assault, such as minimizing the incident and using humor to try to cope.
Lawrence police department leaders did not directly respond to criticisms about that case when questioned by the Journal-World last week. They said to respond to those criticisms may be a disservice to anyone who comes to the police department in the future to talk about sexual assault.
“The survivors are the most important thing at the end of the day … and sometimes that means that you don’t get to tell your side of the story,” said LPD spokesman Patrick Compton.
“… We don’t do that because we’re afraid of telling our story,” he continued; rather, “we choose to be mindful of the survivors.”
But new policy language does provide additional guidance on when the department could make a finding that a sexual assault report is unfounded. Specifically, the language requires the department’s investigations division supervisor to review any such instance.
“Classification of a sexual assault case as unfounded requires the Investigations Division supervisor to determine that the facts have significant irregularities with reported information and that the incident could not have happened as it was reported,” the policy states. “When a victim has recanted his/her original statement, there must be corroborating evidence that the allegations were false or baseless (i.e., no crime occurred) before the case should be determined as unfounded.”
Other changes LPD officials described to the Journal-World include:
• Investigator training: LPD’s Investigations Division has completed a five-hour online training program that Tremblay helped to develop. About half of the division will attend the intensive training sessions Tremblay will provide in April.
Heffley said the plan to get the rest of the division trained will depend on how many spots he’s allotted in the first session. If he only has a half-dozen or so people who still need that training, he’ll try to send them to other sessions in this region; if there are more than that, he said he’ll need to pay Tremblay to come back and give another class. But the goal is to have all of the division through the intensive training by the end of the year, Heffley said.
• Patrol training: For patrol officers — often the first ones who make contact with the survivors — the training timeline is a bit more up in the air.
Capt. Casey Cooper, who supervises the Patrol Division along with Capt. Troy Squire, said they’re working to develop a plan to roll out the five-hour online training to all patrol officers, and that he thinks it’s as important and valuable to that group as it is to the Investigations Division.
Cooper said they want the training to touch as many officers as possible without straining resources on patrol. The state requires annual training on other subjects for officers to keep their certification, Cooper said. The trauma-informed investigation training is not one of those requirements.
“This is something that we’re going to do extra, and we just want to make sure we’re doing it the most effective and efficient way,” he said.
• Reporting procedures: The new policy describes three options for ways survivors can report, depending on their level of comfort: an information-only report, a partial investigation or a complete investigation. It explains the differences and the varying degrees to which evidence will be collected, and survivors can change the option they want at any time prior to the completion of the investigation. Reports can also be anonymous, which Heffley said may present some complications down the line, but the department still wants to get that information from survivors, he said.
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Lawrence-area resources for sexual assault survivors
Whether or not you utilize any of these resources, you do not have to report your assault to police. If you’re not ready or unsure, you can make a report later if you change your mind. The Kansas Bureau of Investigation will keep anonymous evidence submissions for up to five years.
• The Sexual Trauma & Abuse Care Center has advocates on call to support survivors 24/7 at 785-843-8985. Its website, stacarecenter.org, is full of resources for survivors.
Visit the center at 708 W. Ninth St., Suite 105, near Ninth and Mississippi streets. Lawrence Transit bus routes 4, 10 and 11 make stops within a few blocks of the center.
• LMH Health (Lawrence Memorial Hospital) sexual assault nurse examiners, or SANE nurses, are on call 24/7. Under Kansas law, survivors have up to five days after an assault occurs to request a free exam in the emergency room, and there can be exceptions beyond that five-day window.
Visit the hospital at 325 Maine St. in Lawrence or call 785-505-5000 if you need more information. To learn more about what to expect, call the STA Care Center or visit stacarecenter.org/hospital.
• The Willow Domestic Violence Center can help survivors of domestic violence and human trafficking. Reach its 24/7 helpline at 785-843-3333 or visit its website, willowdvcenter.org, to learn more and access more resources.
• University of Kansas: If you want to report an assault to KU Police, you can call 911 or call the nonemergency line at 785-864-5900. You can also visit publicsafety.ku.edu/other-resources to learn about more help available on campus.
• Douglas County dispatch can be reached by calling 911, or you can call the nonemergency line at 785-832-7509. Dispatch communicates with all area law enforcement agencies.
• RAINN, the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network, operates a 24-hour hotline at 800-656-HOPE (4673). It also offers a chat service and other resources on its website, rainn.org.