Austin Police Chief Brian Manley says the high number of exceptional clearances for rape cases is driven by the fact that so few victims decide to cooperate with police. “It's the unfortunate reality of sexual assault in this country,” he says. Credit: Ricardo B. Brazziell/Austin American-Statesman via AP

This story is a collaboration with Newsy and ProPublica.

WASHINGTON – The Austin Police Department has asked the Texas Department of Public Safety to audit the way it processes and clears sexual assault cases following an investigation by Newsy, Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting and ProPublica.

The investigation, Case Cleared, revealed that Austin police and dozens of law enforcement agencies across the country are making it appear as though they have solved a significant share of their rape cases when they have simply closed them without making an arrest, using a process known as exceptional clearance.

Case Cleared

Advocates and rape survivors demanded change at an Austin City Council meeting last month, days after the investigative report was released.

“We have a serious problem with the way that rapes are handled in Austin and Travis County, and this is an opportunity to do something about it,” said Rebecca Bernhardt of the Texas Association Against Sexual Assault.

Hanna Senko told the council that her own case had been exceptionally cleared. “I deeply question what is going on within the sex crimes unit at APD,” Senko said.

Austin Mayor Steve Adler responded by saying that the issue was “worthy of immediate attention” and that the city manager would be following up as a “highest priority.”

Federal guidelines allow police to use the exceptional clearance classification when they have enough evidence to make an arrest and know who and where the suspect is, but can’t make an arrest for reasons outside their control.

Criminal justice experts say the designation of exceptional clearance is supposed to be used sparingly. Our data analysis shows that in 2016 Austin police reported 51 percent of rape cases were cleared, placing the city well above the national average of 36.5 percent. Records we obtained showed suspects were arrested only 17 percent of the time in Austin. The rest were exceptionally cleared – closed with no arrest even though police knew the suspect and had probable cause for an arrest.

The Austin Police Department has promoted its high clearance rate at City Council meetings as a sign of its effectiveness in fighting crime.

But Elizabeth Donegan, who led the sex crimes unit for the department, told us that she had been pressured to change rape cases from “suspended” to exceptionally cleared.

“I think it just gives a false sense to the community that this case has been thoroughly investigated, and it’s closed,” Donegan said.

Police Chief Brian Manley has said there was a “difference of opinions on what the appropriate way to clear cases were.”

The Austin Police Department said it asked for the audit as a part of its “continued efforts towards transparency.”

Austin City Councilwoman Alison Alter said she and other City Council members had asked the Austin Police Department about its high clearance rates back in February 2017, but weren’t satisfied with the response. Atler says she’s concerned the audit currently being conducted won’t be comprehensive enough. The audit examines only three months of cases from 2017.

“It is in the purview of the police chief to request an audit. I don’t know that it is going to provide us the insights we need to address the root of the problem,” she said.

Alter expressed concern that police appear to be blaming the victims for the high exceptional clearance rate. Manley told us that rape survivors are reluctant to report the crime and that the process “keeps many survivors from wanting to participate in the process.”

Alter said she is working with another council member on a resolution to direct a study examining where and why rape survivors decide not to pursue their cases in the Austin criminal justice system.

“For me it’s not a sufficient outcome to blame the victims for not coming forward. There is so much we create in terms of the system that makes it more challenging at one of the most challenging times of their lives,” she said.

Scripps Howard Foundation Journalism Fellows Kenny Jacoby and Sophie Chou contributed to this story.

The reporters can be reached at mark.greenblatt@scripps.com, mark.fahey@scripps.com, bernice.yeung@propublica.org and eharris@revealnews.org. Follow them on Twitter: @greenblattmark, @marktfahey, @bmyeung and @emilygharris.

Bernice Yeung is a reporter for Reveal, covering race and gender. Her work examines issues related to violence against women, labor and employment, immigration, and environmental health. Yeung was part of the national Emmy-nominated Rape in the Fields reporting team, which investigated the sexual assault of immigrant farmworkers. The project won an Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University Award and a Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award and was a finalist for the Goldsmith Prize for Investigative Reporting. Yeung also was the lead reporter for the national Emmy-nominated Rape on the Night Shift team, which examined sexual violence against female janitors. That work won an Investigative Reporters and Editors Award, the Society of Professional Journalists Sigma Delta Chi Award for investigative journalism, and the Third Coast/Richard H. Driehaus Foundation Competition. Those projects led to ​​her first book in 2018, “In a Day's Work: The Fight to End Sexual Violence Against America's Most Vulnerable Workers.”  

A former staff writer for SF Weekly and editor at California Lawyer magazine, Yeung has had her work appear in a variety of media outlets, including The New York Times, The Seattle Times, The Guardian and PBS FRONTLINE. She has a bachelor's degree in journalism from Northwestern University and a master's degree from Fordham University, where she studied sociology with a focus on crime and justice. She was a 2015-16 Knight-Wallace fellow at the University of Michigan, where she explored ways journalists can use social science survey methods in their reporting. Yeung is based in Reveal's Emeryville, California, office.

Emily Harris is a senior reporter and producer for Reveal. She previously served as an NPR international correspondent, based first in Berlin and later in Jerusalem. Her 2016 series on Israelis and Palestinians changing their minds about some aspect of their conflict won the Overseas Press Club’s Lowell Thomas Award, and her 2014 coverage of Gaza was honored with an Overseas Press Club citation. She also was part of the NPR team that won a 2004 Peabody Award for coverage in Iraq. Harris lived in and reported from Russia during the upheaval of the 1990s. In the U.S., she covered a range of beats for NPR’s Washington desk and reported jointly for NPR and PBS’ “Now” with Bill Moyers. Harris helped start and host “Think Out Loud,” a daily public affairs talk show on Oregon Public Broadcasting. She worked to evaluate and share new financial models for journalism as editorial director of the Journalism Accelerator startup. She’s drafted a screenplay about relationships born in war and collects audio stories of awful and mind-changing moments in people’s lives. Harris is based in Portland, Oregon.