Seattle mayor orders plan for stalled sexual assault investigations as advocates demand deadline
This story was co-published by KUOW and The Seattle Times
s frustrated advocates demanded a deadline for the city to fix stalled sexual assault investigations at the Seattle Police Department, Seattle Mayor Bruce Harrell on Thursday ordered that all felony cases with enough evidence for follow-up be assigned to detectives by the end of August.
The executive order, which Harrell’s office said was done in collaboration with interim Police Chief Adrian Diaz, also calls for a “systemic review” of the Police Department’s practices around major crime investigations, better notification of case progress for victims, and increased funding for victim support, among other changes.
The announcement came as a coalition of local sexual assault resource and health care organizations prepared to send a letter Thursday to Harrell’s office, police, and prosecutors, calling on them to guarantee timely investigations of reported sexual assaults and to launch a new panel to oversee other reforms this year.
“The Seattle Police Department has a responsibility for the public safety for all of its citizens and they are not fulfilling that,” said Seattle Indian Health Board executive vice president and letter co-author Abigail Echo-Hawk. “It’s unfathomable.”
Echo-Hawk, who is a citizen of the Pawnee Nation, has for years spoken publicly about her own rape in connection with high rates of violence against Native women and girls. She said she was “tired of the token words of equity” from the city over its treatment of sexual assault survivors.
The groups said they’d waited weeks to see a proposal from the city after reporting from KUOW and The Seattle Times revealed that sexual assault cases involving adult victims were not being investigated in the department’s understaffed sexual assault and child abuse unit.
Minutes before they sent the letter Thursday, Harrell’s office issued an executive order directing the Seattle Police Department to work with national policing and criminal legal system experts to conduct a review of their investigations bureau. It also mandates that every reported felony crime of violence “with sufficient evidence allowing for a follow-up investigation” be assigned to a case detective by Aug. 31, in an attempt to address the current backlog of stalled sexual assault cases.
It’s unclear, however, how many backlogged cases will be assigned to detectives — and of the cases assigned to detectives, how many will be investigated in a timely way.
“Not all such cases can be currently assigned, particularly backlogged cases, given staffing limitations,” mayoral spokesperson Jamie Housen said by email.
The order demands an “unprecedented evaluation of issues created by SPD’s staffing shortage and systemic problems created over decades,” Harrell said in a news release announcing the executive order Thursday. “We are acting to learn from and rectify those challenges to create change, now and long-term.”
In April, the sergeant of the Police Department’s sexual assault and child abuse unit wrote in an internal memo to Diaz that she had too few detectives to investigate sexual assault reports with adult victims and had stopped assigning those cases.
Harrell subsequently called the department’s backlog of stalled cases “unacceptable” and said the city would “indeed make sure that we are providing optimal service, both for investigation and victim survivor support, here this year.” Seattle police have added two positions to the unit this year.
The sergeant who wrote the memo, Pamela St. John, has since become the target of an Office of Police Accountability investigation into the leak of the document.
The Seattle Police Department’s officer shortage has become a core focus for Harrell’s administration.
Earlier this month, Harrell unveiled a $2 million plan to recruit more officers to a department that has lost more than 400 sworn employees since 2020. Harrell’s plan would offer up to $30,000 in hiring bonuses for lateral transfers from other departments, $7,500 for new recruits and aim to hire 500 officers over five years.
Yet advocates say hiring more officers won’t automatically fix long-standing issues in the way the city responds to reports of sexual assault. The groups say they’ve been pointing out problems with the way the city and county handle sexual assault investigations for years.
Riddhi Mukhopadhyay, letter co-author and executive director of the Sexual Violence Law Center, said that hiring additional officers won’t matter if they’re “being directed towards property crimes” or other nonviolent offenses and not responding to sexual assault or domestic violence cases.
King County Sexual Assault Resource Center CEO and letter co-author Mary Ellen Stone said she had “stressed with the mayor this problem existed well before the pandemic.”
But Stone said that Mayor Harrell’s executive order, if implemented, could make a difference.
“What the mayor’s committing to do is a big deal,” she said.
Over the last two and a half years, the overall number of officers and detectives in investigative units has shrunk, while other parts of the department have grown. Percentages of the department’s available officers in patrol and operations support have increased over 2020 — and the department’s unit dedicated to homeless encampments gained seven officers this year alone.
Low staff numbers within the sexual assault unit has resulted in low morale and burned out employees, a detective inside this unit previously told KUOW and The Seattle Times.
Last year, the department received 295 reports of rape, according to departmental crime data. But while sexual assault detectives work on child and adult cases that require time-consuming work, those detectives are also drafted by the department to cover traffic and security at sports games and major events.
Public safety has been, and continues to be, the city of Seattle’s largest category of spending from its general fund.
The city spent $536.5 million on public safety in 2021, nearly 13% of its total expenses, and nearly 23% of its governmental activities, according to city fiscal documents.
Fewer reports referred
Referrals from the Seattle Police Department to King County prosecutors have slowed to a trickle this year, according to an analysis of King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office data.
Seattle police have sent just 28 felony cases involving assault with sexual motivation, attempted rape and rape to King County prosecutors through June 27 of this year, compared to 89 referrals in 2021, 129 in 2020 and 156 in 2019.
“Survivors of sexual assaults need to be heard,” said Casey McNerthney, spokesperson for the King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office.
To charge a case, McNerthney said, prosecutors need detectives who can forward their investigations, and that they support Harrell and others working toward additional police resources.
Meanwhile, advocates worry that a delay in Seattle police response to cases also means a delay in connecting victims with resources.
“We are getting, regularly, calls from victims saying, ‘I made a report, a month, two months ago, and I’m not hearing anything,’” Stone, of the King County Sexual Assault Resource Center, said.
In some parts of the country, the federal government has launched investigations into police departments accused of neglecting their sexual assault caseloads. Last month, the Department of Justice announced an investigation into the New York City Police Department’s special victims division after the feds received reports of failures to investigate cases and poor treatment of sexual assault survivors going back a decade.
But Stone is optimistic about changes in Seattle.
“Let’s fix something we know has been a problem for years and years,” Stone added. “We owe it to rape victims choosing to report.”
Ashley Hiruko: 206-574-8007 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Sydney Brownstone: 206-464-3225 or email@example.com; on Twitter: @sydbrownstone
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Seattle police received 200 rape reports in 2021. Police in 2021 received 295 reports of rape committed that year.