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UNM police frustrated with DA’s Office over sexual assault cases

Copyright © 2016 Albuquerque Journal

The Department of Justice’s report on UNM’s handling of sexual assault and harassment also points a finger at how the District Attorney’s Office in Bernalillo County handles the sexual assault cases it receives.

A footnote in the 37-page report released last week said the supervisors in the University of New Mexico Police Department “expressed frustration as they believed that the district attorney rarely prosecuted sexual assault cases unless the assaults were committed by strangers and the cases were presented ‘in a neat little package tied up in a bow.’ ”

The DOJ’s review of five years of reports filed with UNM found the university sometimes failed to comply with federal laws regarding sexual assault and harassment and said the school needed to revamp how it handles such cases.

UNM President Bob Frank said the university will work with the DOJ to address its concerns.

Footnote No. 28 mentioned UNM’s frustration with the District Attorney’s Office and said that concern went beyond UNM, adding that others in the community had expressed similar concerns when dealing with that office.

District Attorney Kari Brandenburg said no one from the UNMPD has raised complaints with her personally or with her office.

She said she understands the police department’s frustration, but it’s not simple for her office to prosecute sexual crimes.

According to a 2014 report from the District’s Attorney Office, roughly 50 percent of all reported sexual assault cases in 2012 were dismissed.

About 37 percent of the reported cases from the same year resulted in a guilty plea or conviction.

“Our burden of proof is extraordinary in these kinds of cases when it’s a ‘he-said, she-said,’ and we have very high standards in terms of the evidence and what we need to prove,” she said in an interview Wednesday. “Law enforcement may not appreciate what we have to do once we get in the courtroom.”

From 2009 to February 2016, UNMPD referred roughly 20 cases to the District Attorney’s Office, according to UNMPD records. Those same documents indicated at least 11 of those cases were dismissed, one of them twice.

The DOJ report went on to say: “This frustration was echoed by members of the community who had interacted with the District Attorney’s Office on sexual assault matters. While not the focus of this investigation, the United States has concerns that this perceived unwillingness to prosecute sexual assault crimes involving victims known to the offenders may discourage some victims from reporting their assaults.”

A DOJ spokeswoman said Wednesday that the agency didn’t have anything to add to its footnote.

UNM Police Chief Kevin McCabe, who has been with the department for seven years and served as chief for two, said frustration can set in for some officers when a case isn’t prosecuted.

“It’s a debate that goes back and forth,” McCabe told the Journal on Wednesday. “When a case doesn’t get prosecuted, a good detective is disappointed because they put a lot of time and effort into it.”

McCabe said his office works with the District Attorney’s Office, and it’s not his agency’s place to prosecute the case. Sometimes, he said, investigators will return to a case and do additional work to get it ready for court at the behest of the district attorney.

McCabe also said his investigators always strive to get the best possible case.

“It’s my job to make sure they get a good case,” he said. “We can’t concern ourself with the decisions the DA makes. We give them the best investigation we have.”

The DOJ report also noted that UNMPD officers had “inconsistent and intermittent training” in responding to sexual assault cases.

McCabe said that characterization dismisses the investigative experience of his officers.

May Sagbakken, executive director for the Rape Crisis Center of Central New Mexico, didn’t directly address the claims regarding the DA’s Office but did say, “I would encourage the District Attorney’s Office to focus on the high numbers of dismissals involving children and youth and provide more information as to why the community has such a high dismissal rate for these sexual assault cases.”

Among the cases dismissed by Brandenburg’s office were rape charges initially filed against two Lobo football players and another man in 2014 involving a female student following a party.

Both parties in that case have filed lawsuits against the university for the way it handled the case. McCabe said again Wednesday he stands by the work of his officers.