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chief williams

In a video posted on Vimeo, Springfield, Mo., Police Chief Paul Williams apologizes for his department's past practices in handling sexual assault cases and vows to "do better." (Post-Dispatch screen-grab, Dec. 4, 2018)

Ashocking CNN report last week charted how, even now, well into the 21st century, many law enforcement professionals across America still aren’t taking the crime of sexual assault seriously. Among the most disturbing practices has been the premature destruction of “rape kits” — the packages of DNA material and other medical data collected from victims after alleged sexual assaults. On that and other issues, the police department in Springfield, Mo., was among the worst offenders, the network found.

Now, in a refreshing departure from the circle-the-wagons mentality that such revelations often elicit, Springfield’s police chief has issued an apology to the victims and a vow to reform his office’s practices. Candid contrition is an example that law enforcement leaders everywhere should follow.

The CNN report examined the records of 207 of the nation’s roughly 17,000 law enforcement agencies. It found that just within that small sample, 25 of those agencies had destroyed 400 rape kits related to cases for which statutes of limitations hadn’t passed.

It found that between 2010 and 2015, police in Springfield alone have discarded 108 rape kits while prosecution was still viable — some within a year of the alleged crime. Most of the kits were never even tested for DNA.

Thankfully, a recent change in Missouri law addresses part of the problem. Under legislation passed this year, police in the state are now required to submit rape kits to labs within 14 days of collection and cannot destroy the kits for at least 30 years.

But CNN found other issues in Springfield, including an outlandish departmental policy of telling alleged rape victims, by mail, that they have just 10 days to engage with an investigator. The department would automatically close the cases of those they didn’t hear from, labeling the victims “uncooperative.” The department also gave waivers to alleged victims — sometimes on the very day of the crime — pressing them to decide immediately whether to pursue charges. Both policies blithely ignored the psychological trauma inherent in sexual assault.

In a video response posted Friday, Springfield Police Chief Paul Williams said his department “takes full responsibility for what we now know were mistakes in the handling of past sexual assault cases.”

“To the victims of sexual assault and their families … we sincerely apologize,” he said, adding that all rape kits are now tested and kept “indefinitely,” and that the department will work these cases “at a pace comfortable for victims.”

“When you know better, you do better,” he said.

Victim advocates rightly point out that the video message lacks some specificity on what changes the department is making. But give credit where it’s due: This is exactly the kind of acknowledgment of mistakes and vows to “do better” that have to come before real change can happen.

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