April 2014 interview with Caitlin Sulley, University of Texas at Austin
Lots of jurisdictions around the country, Houston had a problem of unsubmitted sexual assault kits, so kits that had been collected at the time of the crime and then submitted to the Houston Police Department when the crime was reported, and then those kits were never screened or processed for DNA evidence. Houston Police Department discovered these, and that’s when we became involved in the research project with them.
One of the things that we’ve learned is that this workload then flows downstream, so the work then goes down toward investigators, prosecutors, and victim advocates. So when you talk about a response to this, you need to think holistically and what’s going to happen in terms of a system response. And fortunately, that’s one of the things that we were able to work with the Houston Police Department on is their response later on after the testing occurs.
One of the things the Houston Police Department was prepared to do was work with our investigative units so they could prepare and manage the workload that was going to come their way. We also learned that victim cooperation with investigators is critical.
So one of the things that we learned by talking to Houston Police Department Investigators is that victim cooperation with their investigations is a critical factor in moving that case along in the criminal justice system. When they don’t have that cooperation—for a variety of reasons—a case can stall out. So one of the things that happened in the Houston Police Department is they integrated a victim advocate into their work. The whole idea behind that was to provide better services for victims very early on in the investigation, thinking that then if the victim did want to pursue the investigation, they would be more willing to cooperate with the investigator.
So the Houston Police Department hired their justice advocate in April of 2013, so she’s been working in HPD with investigators very closely for a year now, and we’re starting to get some indicators about how her work is going. So, the justice advocate has contacted over 250 victims during the course of criminal investigations, and previously, these would have been cases probably that involved the victim advocate working with an investigator very, very rarely, so this is new added numbers that have happened because of her position. The unique thing about this position is, first of all, it’s embedded in the Houston Police Department, and second of all, it’s embedded within the adult sex crimes investigative unit.
The feedback has been positive, and our research partners from the University of Texas have led a focus group of investigators where they talked about the justice advocate position, how this position was being used in their experiences, and the results came back very positive. Those results were provided to the Houston Police Department leadership, and they’ve decided to make her position a permanent one. So what started out as a temporary position funded under our research project is now a permanent position within the Houston Police Department. I think that speaks about the effect that she’s had.