Fewer than half of Houston-area sexual assaults lead to charges

By Robert Arnold - Investigative Reporter

HOUSTON - Both the Houston Police Department and the Harris County Sheriff’s Office receive hundreds of reports of sexual assaults each year.

When Channel 2 Investigates looked at the resolutions of these cases, we found fewer than half led to criminal charges being filed.

Over a 3 1/2-year period, Houston police received more than 4,000 reports of sexual assaults. The Harris County Sheriff's Office reported more than 6,000 sexual assault cases received during a three-year period.

“Caseload is heavy,” HPD Cmdr. David Angelo said.

HPD officials said 18 people are assigned to work adult sexual assault cases, while another 58 are assigned to child cases. The Sheriff's Office reports four investigators are assigned to adult cases, while another 17 are assigned to investigate all types of child abuse, including sexual assault. Both departments reported investigators juggle between 20-25 cases each.

According to HPD records during this time period, fewer than half (40 percent) of all sexual assault cases saw charges filed. The Sheriff's Office reported 10 percent of its cases led to charges.

Officials with the Sheriff’s Office said part of the struggle with clearing its cases comes from inheriting a backlog of 2,000 active child sex cases from the previous administration. Sheriff Ed Gonzalez assigned five more investigators to the child abuse unit and diverted overtime money for case management to help clear about half of the backlogged cases. Gonzalez also cut caseloads to the current number after seeing investigators handling 100 or more cases at a time. Sheriff’s officials said cases are assigned based on circumstances and imminent threat to victims.

Angelo explained one challenge in seeing charges filed in these cases comes from the brutality inflicted on survivors.

“Sexual assault takes an emotional and physical toll on victims, and they may not be ready to tell their story after it's reported to the police,” Angelo said.

The manager of counseling and advocacy for the Houston Area Women's Center, Aly Jacobs, explained just going to police is a difficult decision for many survivors.

“'Am I going to be believed? Is this going to be a huge media spectacle?' There are a lot of hurdles an individual has to overcome,” Jacobs said. “It's incredibly difficult. A lot of our survivors experience a great deal of shame.”

Another potential hurdle is the sexual assault examination needed to collect evidence.

“It can be a very invasive process that can be retraumatizing for a survivor,” Jacobs said.

Both Jacobs and Angelo said it is not uncommon for survivors to take weeks, months or even years to report an attack. However, delayed reports create other challenges for law enforcement.

“We lose evidence, biological evidence, forensic evidence. Witness memories become maybe not as clear,” Angelo said.

Angelo said while delayed report cases can prove difficult, it is not impossible to see charges filed. Angelo cited the case of a man who waited eight years to go to police and accuse famed opera singer David Daniels and his husband, William A. Scott Walters, of sexual assault.

“That investigation took close to eight months, and we were able to file two charges in that case,” Angelo said.

Daniels and Walters deny any wrongdoing.

“The cases against David and Scott are not examples of careful investigation. They are the product of a rush to judgment based on false allegations. David and Scott are innocent. Cases like these waste time and resources that should be used to help real victims,” wrote Matt Hennessey, an attorney for Daniels and Walters.

A review of both departments’ records also showed hundreds of cases listed as “inactive” or “closed.” Cases receive this status if all leads have been exhausted and no suspect is known or an adult victim decides they no longer wish to pursue an investigation.

“We give victims the power back in these investigations to determine how fast they want to move, if they want to move forward,” Angelo said of sexual assault cases involving adults.

Jacobs said the length of time investigations take can be draining for a sexual assault survivor who is trying to rebuild their life.

“New memories come up, new trauma reactions surface, new expressions of that trauma are evident,” Jacobs said.

One avenue open to survivors who may not be ready to file a report with police but do want to collect possible evidence of an attack is the Texas Department of Public Safety’s Non-Reported Sexual Assault Evidence Program. This program allows survivors to have a sexual assault examination conducted free of charge without the incident being reported to police. DPS will then preserve that evidence for two years before it is destroyed. You can read more about the program here.

If you have been the victim of abuse or sexual assault, you can call the Houston Area Women’s Center’s Domestic Violence hotline at 713-528-2121 or the Sexual Assault hotline at 713-528-RAPE (7273).

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