The Louisville Metro Police Department will add new training for patrol officers responding to victims of sexual assault and change some aspects of how they close rape cases, an LMPD official said Wednesday.
Lt. Shannon Lauder, who runs the special victims unit, testified about the changes at Metro Council’s public safety committee. Lauder was asked to testify in response to a Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting story that found LMPD cleared three times as many 2017 rape cases “by exception” than they did by arrest.
That investigation found that the most common reason a case was cleared by exception was because prosecutors declined to take the case.
Councilwoman Jessica Green, the committee chair and a former prosecutor, said she called Lauder to testify because she was disappointed with the way police responded to a rape report from Jen Sainato in January 2018. KyCIR’s story focused on Sainato’s case, including the way six officers crowded into her hotel room after she reported a rape.
“I said it to you and I will say it publicly, without hesitation, that my impression of that initial interaction: it was horrendous,” Green said to Lauder.
LMPD Adds Training But Disputes Story’s Findings
Body camera footage from that night shows an officer ask Sainato repeatedly how much she had to drink, put his hands on her arms and, later, tell other officers that they “get these a lot in the hotels” — people drink too much, take someone back to their rooms and then say they got raped.
Green asked Lauder how the department will do better.
“What I will say is that our words matter,” Lauder said. “We know when we are communicating with victims of sexual assault and victims of trauma, we have to remember that our words matter. And I think that in this instance, in particular, we can do better.”
Lauder said her sex crimes detectives have extensive training, but patrol officers often don’t. The LMPD is working with the Southern Police Institute at the University of Louisville on new, “groundbreaking” training focused on improving patrol officers’ response to sexual assault and trauma victims. That includes video training that will launch in April, and in-service training that will roll out in 2021, she said.
Lauder said the changes are a positive that resulted from KyCIR’s story, but she called the reporting “disingenuous,” noting that the stories never mentioned that LMPD was closing cases with the “best of intentions” to be victim-centered.
Lauder said she was excited to explain her department’s statistics further to the committee, because LMPD’s arrest rate on sex crimes is actually much higher than KyCIR reported.
“The statistics were manipulated and rattled off in a manner that gave a false perspective on what’s really going on in Louisville,” she said.
KyCIR examined records for 194 rape or sodomy cases reported in 2017 and found a 15% arrest rate. Those numbers were based on data obtained from LMPD through an open records request as well as LMPD case files and court records.
Lauder told the committee LMPD actually had an arrest rate of 19% in 2017. She based that percentage on a much smaller number of sex crime cases that she said excluded crimes against children.
While KyCIR’s review found four cases from 2017 ended with a rape conviction, Lauder said that they obtained 12 “felony convictions.” She did not say how many of those were for rape.
‘Our community is better than this’
Lauder conceded that KyCIR accurately portrayed the percentage of rape cases that were cleared by exception after a prosecutor declined it, and that the city’s use of that type of clearance was higher than in other similarly-sized cities. But she said the story failed to acknowledge that “we were doing that with the best of intentions,” Lauder said.
“It is hurtful to me, and it is hurtful to my detectives, to be accused of not caring about victims and not doing everything they can to see convictions,” Lauder said.
She said LMPD has since added a new category, “cleared by exception, victim requests case closure,” to more accurately reflect the impetus for the case clearance. Lauder did not address whether that would affect how often they close those cases without arrests.
According to Lauder, Louisville is actually exceeding the national standard for conviction rates in felony sex crimes, which she said was about 2%.
Councilwoman Barbara Sexton Smith said beating the national standard isn’t good enough.
“We not only need to beat the national standard, we need to create an entire new standard,” she said. “Our community is better than this. LMPD can do better than this.”
After the hearing, Green, the committee chairwoman, said the changes announced by LMPD will help to start changing the mindset of officers and prosecutors. But she disagreed with Lauder’s statement that their approach was victim-centered.
“I don’t think that numbers lie. I think there was some attempt to kind of deflect what the numbers say or to blame the media for some of the messaging that’s gone out,” Green said. “But the numbers are real. I appreciate LMPD’s perspective but we don’t ever want to discount the voice of victims.”
Jen Sainato was in the audience at the hearing. She and her niece drove from Valparaiso, Indiana to hear what Lauder had to say about her case.
Lauder said she couldn’t say much, since Sainato’s case has been reopened. But she said a “miscommunication” in the way that case was closed has prompted a change in policy.
Police records show the case was cleared by exception because Assistant Commonwealth Attorney Kristi Gray declined it, but Gray told Sainato she never declined her case.
Lauder told the committee that Gray had said she would decline the case if “one more lab test” didn’t yield any new information. When the test came back negative, the detective cleared the case in “good faith upon this verbal agreement.” She said going forward, detectives will require prosecutors to put that in writing to avoid miscommunication.
Green said she invited a representative from the Commonwealth’s Attorney’s office to attend Wednesday’s hearing, but no one did.
Sainato said Lauder’s changes don’t go far enough.
“I think there needs to be more focus on not explaining paperwork and statistics, but looking at victims and their cases, and truly wanting to arrest someone and solve it,” Sainato said.
Sainato said she’s used to being disappointed by LMPD. But one good thing did come out of the hearing: she met other survivors, with similar stories, who came to watch the testimony too.
“I met a victim today and right away we hugged and just cried in each other’s arms,” she said. “We both have identical stories. And it is not a coincidence.”
Amina Elahi and Jacob Ryan contributed to this report.