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Rape response: Denton police look to improve investigations into city's most notable violent crime

Rape is the most prevalent violent crime in Denton next to aggravated assaults, and compared to other violent crime categories, it presents unique obstacles for local law enforcement.

Out of all types of violent crime — which include homicides, rapes, robberies and aggravated assaults — rape is the only category in Denton that remains well above state and national averages. Denton police investigated 90 rapes in 2015 and 95 in 2016, according to national crime statistics. Data for all of 2017 isn't yet available, but the department handled 55 rape reports in the first six months of last year.

Police officials have attributed the high number of rape reports largely to the student population from the University of North Texas and Texas Woman's University. Over the years, both universities have worked to dissolve the stigma surrounding sexual violence by encouraging reporting.

Now, Denton police are pushing to improve sexual assault investigations with a $450,000 federal grant to fund sexual assault training and the creation of a new detective position specifically to handle such crimes.

Lt. Chris Summitt with the Denton Police Department speaks about what local law enforcement is doing to prevent human trafficking and gives advice to civilians about how they can help. Denton County Human Trafficking Coalition hosted an event in January at Dan's Silverleaf in Denton to talk about human trafficking in Denton County and North Texas.DRC
Lt. Chris Summitt with the Denton Police Department speaks about what local law enforcement is doing to prevent human trafficking and gives advice to civilians about how they can help. Denton County Human Trafficking Coalition hosted an event in January at Dan's Silverleaf in Denton to talk about human trafficking in Denton County and North Texas.

"We felt like we could do a better job in our approach with the victims and then in our approach to [connecting] the victim with social services to make sure that, even if the case doesn't result in a successful prosecution, we're making an effort to help the victim pick up the pieces of their life and glue it all back together," said Denton police Lt. Chris Summitt, who oversees the criminal investigations division at the Denton Police Department.

Responding to a need

Before the the new sexual assault investigator position opened, five detectives in the major crimes unit handled every sexual assault report in Denton along with their other duties.

According to Sgt. Danny Fletcher, who supervises the unit, detectives juggle at least three to four cases at a time, including sexual assaults. Sometimes, the unit simply lacks the manpower and resources to fully investigate every claim of sexual violence, he said.

"Because of the nature of the allegation, they are very labor-intensive," Fletcher said, adding that detectives periodically ask for help from other areas of the department, including general investigations, family services and special operations.

The frequency of reported rapes in Denton doesn't appear to be slowing down anytime soon, according to state and national crime data.

The 55 rape reports in the first half of 2017 showed a slight increase from the 46 rape reports in the first six months of 2016, according to data from the Texas Department of Public Safety. Denton police recorded 52 rape reports in the first six months of 2015. 

Data for all of 2017 isn't yet available, though the Department of Public Safety reported 78 untested rape kits from Denton police as of Feb. 2, according to information obtained through an open-records request. Crime statistics from 2015 and 2016 show Denton's rape rate  — which tracks the number of reports per 100,000 people — was roughly 50 percent higher than statewide and national rates.

In 2016, the FBI's Uniform Crime Reporting system reported 95 rapes in Denton , with a rate of 70.99 per 100,000 people. In Texas, 48 rapes were reported per 100,000 people. Nationally, 40.4 rapes were reported per 100,000 people.

Experts warn against taking crime data at face value. More rape reports could simply mean people feel more comfortable reporting sexual violence, which may also depend on the victim's relationship with the abuser. 

In Denton, the majority of cases involve a victim who is either acquainted with their abuser or in a relationship with them, Summitt said.

"We're not dealing with [serial] sexual predators," he said.

The Denton Police Department was one of six agencies to receive the grant money through an initiative offered by the International Association of Chiefs of Police. The basic tenets of the initiative include improving sexual assault training and helping officers avoid tendency toward gender bias against women whose allegations are suspect. 

Since Denton police received the grant funds earlier this month, former patrol officer April McDonough has been settling into her new role as a detective specializing in sexual assaults.

McDonough's contract hasn't been finalized, and her supervisor wouldn't allow her to talk about her work until then. Denton police are still ironing out the details of how they will use the money, but McDonough's promotion is one of many improvements the department hopes to make in the next year and a half, Summitt said.

The state already offers sexual assault training for investigators and for officers who want to become detectives. Summitt expects the grant will eventually fund training for all Denton patrol officers — who are usually the first to interview the victim of an alleged sexual assault.

"There's a significant amount of research that will say the best way to enhance your investigative outcomes is at the time of the report, which means getting better performance out of patrol," he said.

Better training ahead

All Texas police officers are required to take at least 40 hours of training every two years, according to Texas Commission on Law Enforcement. In order to keep a peace officer license, TCOLE requires every officer to take a Special Investigative Topics course, which outlines the basics of talking to victims of sexual trauma.

Officers who are interested in specifically investigating sex-related crimes, like McDonough, typically enroll in the Sexual Assault Family Violence Investigator Course, also known as SAFVIC. The class teaches the history of family violence, the characteristics of an abuser, barriers of escaping an abusive situation, teen dating violence and sexual assault case law.

Despite the rigorous curriculum, the course alone doesn't make an officer an expert on sexual assault investigations, according to SAFVIC program specialist Brooke Balmos-Hinojosa. For that, officers need experience on the street and a relationship with social service providers, she said.

"For the first five years, every call is different, and you're just learning," Balmos-Hinojosa said. "I think this course helps officers learn community resources and understanding dynamics of sexual assault and protocol evidence collection. But in the sense of actually seeing the victim and taking cues of what they need at the time, that, I think, just comes with experience and working and learning with your advocates."

Denton County Friends of the Family, a nonprofit that assists victims of sexual and domestic violence, partnered with Denton police on the sexual assault grant application. The advocacy group, which already works closely with Denton police investigators and county prosecutors on domestic and sexual violence cases, will receive a portion of the funding.

Donna Bloom
Donna Bloom

Friends of the Family legal services director Donna Bloom said she's most excited about the potential for widespread sexual assault training for patrol officers. The money may help bring subject matter experts into the department to teach better evidence collection procedures and interview techniques, she said.

The ultimate goal is to keep the victims connected to counseling and legal services while successfully prosecuting more rape cases, she said.

"It's a very different paradigm to investigate sexual assault than almost any other crime that exists," said Bloom, who has provided guidance and legal consultation to hundreds of domestic and sexual abuse victims. "In an investigation, police are trying to determine whether a crime occurred. But with victims of sex assault, there are so many dynamics about trauma that impact how someone reports that crime, the details of that crime and the memory of that crime."

Yamma Brown was the guest speaker during a domestic violence awareness event last month at Patterson-Appleton Arts Center in Denton.

Denton County Friends of the Family, a nonprofit that advocates for victims of domestic violence and sexual abuse, hosted the event to explore the history of domestic violence in the African-American community.DRC
Yamma Brown was the guest speaker during a domestic violence awareness event last month at Patterson-Appleton Arts Center in Denton. Denton County Friends of the Family, a nonprofit that advocates for victims of domestic violence and sexual abuse, hosted the event to explore the history of domestic violence in the African-American community.

Sometimes, she said, a traumatized victim may not tell an investigators certain details of an alleged assault. That could quickly change the dynamic of the investigation, Bloom said. 

"It can be perceived as deception, so [police] immediately get concerned that they're dealing with someone who may not be credible," she said.

Victims who are in a dating relationship with the abuser may hold back information because they fear retaliation. In other cases, the victim may not think police will believe her, Bloom said. 

"As a community, we're not even really willing to embrace this idea that sexual violence that's happening within the context of relationships is criminal, because 'Well, she had had a consensual relationship with that person a week ago, or two weeks ago, so how could it be sexual violence today?' It's a very difficult subject," Bloom said. 

Summitt wants the patrol ranks to be aware of the pitfalls and know exactly what to listen for when talking to victims of sexual violence, he said. He hopes to adopt a more "trauma-informed" approach to interviewing, which provides for more positive interactions with victims.

"Rather than focusing on sequential flow of events and timelines, it deals more with emotionality to get memories," Summitt said.

Police officials also hope to influence other police departments with new training practices. But elsewhere in Denton, federal mandates have already left a heightened sense of awareness about sexual assault.

University response

In 2011, the Obama administration created policies that changed the way colleges and universities handled on-campus sexual assault allegations.

Schools that receive federal funding, including UNT and TWU, were required to make it easier to report allegations and discipline offenders. They created sexual misconduct policies and sexual harassment training courses. Many universities appointed a specific officer to receive complaints and required a lower burden of proof for sexual assault reports than law enforcement.

Since then, UNT and TWU have received $750,000 in grant funding to create better prevention and response measures for campus sexual assault. Although the U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos did away with key elements of the Obama-era policies, both universities are still benefiting from the grant funds.

Earlier this month, UNT released the results of a 2017 campus sexual misconduct survey, which showed that 13.6 percent of the roughly 2,600 student respondents were victims of sexual violence.

The grant funds also paid for an interactive theater troupe at TWU run by professor Noah Lelek, who specializes in using theater for therapy and education.

Lelek's troupe acts out a scenario in which a freshman student is sexually assaulted at a party on campus. The character's friends partially blame her for the encounter, and after the performance, audience members ask the actors questions about their characters' decisions. 

They discuss what could have been done differently to better understand the nuances of sexual assault. 

"It's an interesting opportunity for students to develop empathy and to figure out what they'd do in that situation, because it's not really cut and dry. It's sometimes hard for students to think about," he said.

Lelek, whose 12-person troupe usually performs for audiences under 100 people, said performances help create an emotional response that allows audience members to better empathize with the issue, he said. 

In his experience, it's one of the more effective ways to spread awareness, he said.  

"Instead of just talking about it and going through a PowerPoint presentation, you actually see someone," he said. 

"I think at times we have a problem communicating with these issues," Lelek said. "We don't know how to create dialogue ... so I think this gives us a safe space to tackle that."

JULIAN GILL can be reached at 940-566-6882. 

FEATURED PHOTO: A sexual assault evidence kit is logged in the biology lab in 2015 at the Houston Forensic Science Center in Houston. AP file photo

In the Know 

Resources for sexual and domestic violence victims: 

National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline: 1-800-656-HOPE (4673)

Denton County Friends of the Family 24-hour crisis line:  1-800-572-4031 or 940-382-7273

Legal Aid for Survivors of Sexual Assault hotline (legal services): 1-800-991-5153

Friends of the Family Outreach office: 4845 S. Interstate 35E in Corinth