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Police chief apologizes to rape victims and vows reforms in response to CNN investigation

Posted December 3, 2018 10:07 p.m. EST

— The police chief in Springfield, Missouri, has apologized to the city's sexual assault victims and ordered changes in how the department handles sex crimes cases. The reaction follows a CNN investigation into rape kit destruction that highlighted the agency's practices, which experts called "disturbing."

Springfield Police Chief Paul Williams offered the apology in a video posted on social media and invited victims to contact him if they felt their assaults were "not investigated appropriately."

He told local journalists that the department will no longer give sex crimes victims a 10-day deadline to respond to investigators or face the closure of their cases.

He also pledged that the department would stop giving victims so-called prosecution declination waivers, a practice long discouraged by the International Association of Chiefs of Police. CNN found Springfield officers gave victims these forms soon after they reported being assaulted and before investigations were complete, effectively ending cases.

The CNN investigation "Destroyed," which published Thursday, revealed that 25 law enforcement agencies in 14 states destroyed 400 rape kits tied to cases in which the statutes of limitations were still running or there was no time limit to prosecute.

The number is likely higher. CNN surveyed 207 law enforcement agencies; there are an estimated 17,000 in the country. CNN's analysis was based on records provided by the departments that reported destroying kits.

Read: How CNN reported its investigation

Springfield stood out among other departments for the volume and variety of investigative mistakes that led to the disposal of evidence and how quickly kits were destroyed.

Police in the state's third largest city discarded 108 rape kits since 2010 while a prosecution was still viable under the law. Of those kits, 75% were never tested for DNA. Dozens of untested kits were destroyed in a year or less after victims reported being assaulted. At the time the cases were reported, there was no statute of limitations on prosecuting forcible rape or forcible sodomy in Missouri. The shortest time limit for any other felony was three years.

Williams did not respond to CNN's request for comment on his plans to reform some practices.

CNN found that the department had a practice of pressuring victims and rushing cases to a close.

The department mailed letters to victims soon after they reported they were assaulted -- sometimes on the same day that detectives were assigned to investigate. Those letters gave them 10 days to engage with an investigator. If they did not respond, police closed their cases and labeled the victims uncooperative. The victims had already given statements to patrol officers and undergone rape exams, actions that experts said strongly demonstrated a desire for the assaults to be investigated.

One expert who examined Springfield case files decried the practices as "old fashioned" and "horrendous."

"You're not serious about solving rape cases if you destroy rape kits before the statute of limitations," said retired Sergeant Joanne Archambault, who ran the San Diego police department's sex crimes unit for 10 years.

The 10-day letter was "appalling," said another expert, Carol Tracy, a Philadelphia attorney who has worked with the Philadelphia Police Department since 2000 to annually review the quality of its sex crimes investigations.

Read: "Inside one department's botched investigations"

Many readers were outraged by what CNN revealed and by the chief's initial response to "Destroyed." Hours after the story published, he released a statement that acknowledged that "errors" were made in past cases. He told Springfield TV station and CNN affiliate KY3 that his agency was no different than others across the country in how it handled sexual assault investigations and evidence. "That was the norm 10, 15 years ago," he said.

CNN's report, however, covered cases reported between 2006 and 2014. And records show the department discarded untested kits as recently as 2015; Williams had told CNN he was unaware of that destruction.

In addition, experts said the department failed to follow best practices that date back as far as 2005.

Readers posted comments on the department's Facebook page over the weekend. Some called for Williams' firing or punishment of the detectives whose cases CNN featured.

"This is why rape/sexual assault SURVIVORS don't come forward..." one person wrote.

Said another post: "I think everyone involved should be fired."

Springfield City Manager Jason Gage told the Springfield News-Leader Friday that he has "the highest confidence in the police department" and how it handles sexual assault investigations.

Williams said the department is "committed to submitting all rape kits to a lab to be analyzed and will retain rape kits indefinitely."

That is something that police now are required to do by law. In August, Missouri lawmakers enacted a statute requiring police to submit kits to labs within 14 days of receiving the evidence and maintain that evidence for at least 30 years.

The chief's promises to do better are not enough for an organization called Me Too Springfield. The 200-member group -- comprised of mental health professionals, survivors of sexual assault and those who work on their behalf -- want the department to outline specific action.

The group reacted to CNN's investigation by sending a letter to the department Thursday. In it, members demanded to know how the agency would ensure the public that investigations will be conducted properly, kits will be tested and evidence will be maintained for the length of the statutes of limitations.

"We definitely need to see not only that you acknowledge the errors, but how you're going to fix them," Me Too Springfield President Jordan Harris told CNN.

In CNN's investigation, Williams blamed inadequate staffing for how sex crimes investigations were handled.

In its letter, Me Too Springfield wrote that being understaffed was an "inappropriate excuse for violating best practices and voluntarily destroying evidence."

Harris said the group will ask Williams for all sex crimes investigators' current caseloads.

"It's his responsibility to make sure that these victims feel safe, and that they're able to come forward if they are brave enough to," she said.

Harris was raped years ago, she said. She did not report the assault to police, but she shares that trauma publicly now. CNN typically does not publish the names of rape victims without their consent.

"It's important to us that people know that even if your trauma happened a long time ago, if you went through the trauma, lived that over again by getting a rape kit, that your case absolutely deserves justice."

On Monday, she sent CNN the department's response to the Me Too Springfield letter.

It was emailed by a police spokesperson and repeated that the agency was going to test and keep rape kits and "continuously review all our policies and practices." It also said that the department strives "to maintain appropriate levels of staffing and making that a reality is an on-going goal."

Taxes, the letter said, will help pay to add more officers to work sex crimes.

Me Too Springfield asked how many untested kits the department still has and was told that Williams ordered a review of all sexual assault kits in 2014 and determined there were "an excess of 300 that had not been tested" at that time. The number, the letter said, has been reduced to 237. The department said it expects to eliminate that backlog within the next two years.

Harris said Me Too Springfield emailed the department spokesperson Sunday asking for a one-on-one meeting with Williams.

"We're just ready to work with the police department and maybe come up with some new ways to help sexual assault victims," she said.

Harris provided a copy of that email to CNN. It says the group wants to "identify areas where we can help improve the system for the thousands of sexual assault survivors in Springfield, and the thousands more that are likely yet to be."

As of Monday night, the group had not received a response.