Springfield police chief Paul Williams highlighted the community partnerships made by the Springfield Police Department as they revise their procedures in dealing with victims of sexual assault.
The chief presented a report to council outlining the problem of sexual assault in the community, issues raised about the police department’s handling of cases and how they have worked with community organizations to create a more victim-centered approach to investigations.
The chief highlighted that the department has launched a new victim resources page. The page was streamlined because of the contributions of local support organizations like the Victim Center, Harmony House and MeToo Springfield. The page gives victims the opportunity to learn about partner organizations that can help them, how to file a report with a detective or learn about the investigative process.
Among the items the Chief pledged the department to undertake were an ongoing dialogue with survivors and community partners; policy and practice reviews; continued advanced training for officers in dealing with sexual assault cases and discussions of procedure with the Chief’s Community Advisory Group, which meets quarterly to advise the chief on department actions.
Chief Williams also spoke about a national news report that was critical of the Springfield police department’s handling of rape kits where a number were destroyed. He said the department went back to look at every one of the cases and discovered that all of the cases had been investigated per the procedure of every sexual assault case being assigned to a detective.
In the case of the stories in the national news story, 11 produced negative lab results, 38 were involved in cases sent to the prosecutor but charges were declined, 25 where the victim chose not to participate in the prosecution, 27 cases where they were unable to locate the victim and 9 resulted in the investigation finding no crime had taken place.
The chief also noted the difference between the police department and the prosecutor’s office when it comes to determinations on prosecutions. The police work on a standard of probable cause, while prosecutors have to prove a case beyond a reasonable doubt. This means many times cases referred to the prosecutor by police for charges will be declined.
The biggest part of the chief’s presentation focused on efforts to work with local organizations like the Victim Center, Harmony House and MeToo Springfield in making sure the processes taken by the department provide the victims with the support they need as well as obtain the information necessary to gain convictions of criminals.
Chief Williams repeatedly noted that 7 out of 10 sexual assault victims never report their attacks to police and that he hopes the partnerships and actions they are taking to serve and educate victims about their options will help lower the number of victims who suffer in silence.
Speaking to reporters after the Council session, Chief Williams said that he believes that because of groups like MeToo and the awareness of sexual assault over the last two years that more of the people who would fall into the 7 out of 10 who do not report their crime are choosing to reach out to law enforcement.
During his presentation, Chief Williams noted several times that local organizations help provide education to the public about sexual assault that is vital in helping to reduce crime.
Brandi Bartel, executive director of the Victim Center, told council members that education opportunities in schools is a key way to help reduce sexual assaults. She said that teaching healthy relationships early allows children to grow with respect for others and knowledge of what is acceptable behavior.
Bartel, along with other leaders in the support community, told council that funding for education programs is hard to obtain. It’s difficult for groups that work to stop domestic and sexual violence to get grants for their projects because they don’t have any visible proof of their work; they can’t “show” a grant committee the end of result of their funding. It was noted, however, some grant funding groups are starting to realize the value of programs that prevent violence even if they can’t see an immediate end result of the programs.
Bartel also noted that the Victim Center can provide total anonymity to victims of assault while they investigate working with the SPD to investigate their case. Also, any victim can contact The Victim Center if they have questions or issues with the investigation into their assault.
Councilmember Tom Prater told OI he was impressed with the Chief’s presentation.
“I think the chief’s been very proactive in looking over what was not a bad mistake but fixing some policy issues in the past and moving forward to help sexual assault victims in the future,” Prater said. “We want Springfield to be on the leading edge of taking care of sexual assault victims and I think chief’s laid out a road map to help us get there.”
Mayor McClure called the presentation “very thorough, very informative and very positive report. We look forward to continuing to move forward with it.”
Sarah Bargo of MeToo Springfield told OI that she was impressed with the presentation although Chief Williams had given much of the information previously to her organization during a series of meetings and email exchanges.
“It is impressive to see how far they’ve come in a couple of years,” Bargo said. “But I’m impressed that Chief Williams but also City Council and other leaders it the community want to press forward with keeping SPD accountable. That’s what I’m most impressed with.”
Bargo said that one of the things her group has discovered is that the issue is bigger than the Springfield police department as it appeared from the national news article.
“I think it’s a matter that the CNN report did not provide the full context,” Bargo said. “What we’ve learned in educating ourselves is that it’s not necessarily just an SPD issue. It involves the prosecutor’s office and the crime lab. I feel those two issues were missing from the CNN reporting. If those elements had been introduced into the reporting, it would have given a clearer picture. I don’t that the reporting was misrepresented in any way but I don’t think it was a full picture.”
Bargo said that her organization is solutions oriented and is focused on how to make things better going forward for victims of sexual assault.
“There wasn’t going to be any progress to come from ranting on Facebook,” Bargo told OI. “We wanted to see how we can have these conversations, how we can be helpful to victims by engaging with them. To help the Springfield PD be able to have a victim-centered outlook because our organization is almost all survivors so we have that perspective to share. We thought it would be valuable and [the SPD] have found it valuable as well.”
Bargo also echoed the statements of other community victim advocates regarding the importance of education.
“Education is the key to all of this,” Bargo said. “Having this start out on the school level with young people is definitely where it’s at.”
“We have been trying to reach out to several organizations within the community and many of them have accepted us to come in and speak to their members,” Bargo added. “I think there’s a lot of grey area that surrounds the idea of consent and dating. Because of the whole MeToo movement it’s created a whole list of questions of what is acceptable and what is not.”
“Literally anyone of all ages can benefit by learning just exactly what consent means.”
Bargo noted that it’s also important to talk to your children about sexual assault because many victims of sexual assault are children. She told OI it’s important that education about the issue begin very young.
The chief will next meet with the public regarding this issue and other issues related to the department at his “Coffee with the Chief” event Friday morning, 7 a.m. at The Coffee Ethic in downtown Springfield.