Four months after a scathing audit found significant problems in Portland's investigation of sex crimes, Portland Police Chief Rosie Sizer said she's optimistic that with new leadership, more detectives and a prosecutor dedicated to the unit, the city will see improvement.
Sizer, addressing the City Council on Tuesday, outlined several steps that have been taken since the auditor's June report, yet acknowledged there's more to be done.
The update, requested by Commissioner Randy Leonard, marked the first time the council has sought a response from police supervisors who handle sex crime investigations.
Leonard said he wanted a public discussion because he got the sense some of the officers in the unit were "hostile" to the audit's recommendations. On Tuesday, he began by telling several police supervisors present that he didn't intend the gathering to be a "gotcha" session, but a way to inform the public about what's being done.
What council members heard Tuesday is that changes are under way from the moment a victim calls 9-1-1 to report a crime through the prosecution of a suspect.
The 36-page audit said Portland ranked next to last in solving forcible rape cases compared with 21 other cities. It found that some sexual-assault victims had to wait weeks or even months before a detective contacted them.
It identified sloppy documentation and inadequate investigative techniques by detectives; cases where detectives failed to pursue suspects, even though victims identified who had attacked them; and instances where detectives never followed up if the victims didn't return calls or refused to come downtown to the Justice Center.
New procedures have been drafted to ensure all 9-1-1 dispatchers advise any caller who reports a sex assault -- whether it's the victim, a family member or even a nurse --that the victim should avoid bathing, urinating or washing clothes in order to maintain evidence, said Toni Sexton, operations manager for the Bureau of Emergency Communications.
Every time an officer is sent to a sex assault call, the city wants a rape victim advocate to be dispatched as well. Officers are encouraged to ask for an advocate already but the Police Bureau and emergency dispatch are working to set up an automated system that would ensure a victim advocate is sent every time, Sizer said.
The sex assault detail, made up of a sergeant and four detectives this summer, has doubled. In late August, the chief appointed Sgt. Mike Geiger to head the eight-detective unit.The audit found that the sex assault detail suffered from low morale and a reputation for being a bum assignment. Geiger, who was a homicide detective for three years before his recent promotion to sergeant, said the unit is now made up of detectives eager to do good work.
Geiger, who has also had two years' experience investigating sex crimes, said he's trying to constantly teach, encourage and engage his investigators.
Meeting in person
Geiger said he is requiring his detectives to meet face to face with victims and if they can't locate a victim, to at least go to a home and leave their business cards.
City commissioners were dismayed to learn that there is one car for every three sex assault detectives.
"Doesn't that inhibit the best use of their time?" Leonard asked.
Geiger said detectives historically have tried to "beg one off" another detail, or if they can't, they might have to delay an interview. Detective Division Cmdr. John Eckhart said the lack of cars has been an "age-old" problem that he's eager to correct either through using city pool cars, leasing or buying used cars.
"This is not the issue we should have if what's holding us up is getting some $11,000 Chevettes," Leonard said later.
Officers fax report
To speed up detectives' response to an assault, patrol officers are being asked to fax sexual assault reports to the detective division. The audit found that of 62 unsolved cases reviewed from 2002 to 2006, more than half weren't assigned to a detective for at least a week. Eckhart said the bureau, though, still must "triage" cases because there are not enough detectives to pursue every reported assault.
In 2006, 720 sex assault cases were reported. So far this year, about 450 sex assault cases have been reported to Portland police.
The Police Bureau will ask the city this fall for about $120,000 to hire two civilian sexual assault specialists, who would contact victims and connect them to community resources.
Since August, Multnomah County prosecutor Chris Ramras has been assigned full time to the sex assault division, working beside detectives at the Justice Center. Instead of getting involved in a case when it reaches the grand jury stage, Ramras now reviews all reported sex assaults, sometimes accompanies detectives when they interview victims and suggests varied investigative techniques. The county also has assigned a rape victim advocate to the unit.
Multnomah County District Attorney Michael Schrunk urged the city, county and state to work together to improve the handling of sex crimes.
"This is one of the most sensitive areas in criminal prosecution," Schrunk said. "We can move fast if we're all talking."
Maxine Bernstein: 503-221-8212; maxinebernstein@ news.oregonian.com