Criminally Negligent

Although more sex crimes cases are coming in, fewer are being assigned to investigators
City Pages

Julie, a tattooed brunette in her mid-30s, was walking with her newborn son in a stroller on a northeast Minneapolis sidewalk last August when a white Ford pulled up. The driver, a slight, middle-aged man with round glasses and a mild demeanor, made a strange proposition: "I'll give you $100 if you'll talk to me. I don't care if the baby watches."

Julie, who asked that her last name not be used, ignored the bizarre request and strolled down to the 1029 Bar, a cop hangout. Suddenly, the man ran up from behind her and jammed his hand between her legs, then groped her breast. "Get the fuck off of me, you motherfucker!" Julie screamed.

Passing motorists stopped. The attacker ran back to his car, kicking over the stroller with her baby in it in his hurry. He sped off, but not before Julie and a witness got his license plate number.

Julie borrowed a phone and called 911. Twenty minutes later, a Minneapolis police officer arrived and took down her statement, but didn't interview any of the witnesses. Later that day, Julie followed up with a visit to precinct headquarters. She was told to come back Monday—it was Friday afternoon and the Sex Crimes Unit wasn't available on weekends.

That Monday, the case was assigned to Sgt. Robert Dale, an investigator who transferred into the unit earlier this year. Over the next few weeks, Julie became well acquainted with Dale's voicemail. When she finally reached him, the sergeant told her to hold tight: There were a lot of cases to be worked, and hers would take six to eight weeks, minimum.

So she waited. And waited. Until earlier this month, when—three months after the attack—Julie finally got a call from the police asking her to come look at a photo lineup. She squinted at a set of grainy photos and picked out a man she thought might be the assailant.

She was wrong. Another of the men in the lineup was the registered owner of the license plate in question, which was last registered to a white Ford Mustang. Dale told Julie he'd call that man and get back to her.

The man who owned the Mustang said it had been in storage since May, and that the plate hadn't been on that vehicle since 2004. He even invited the sergeant to come take a look at the car, but Dale declined. "The point is moot," he said, citing the owner's "eagerness to cooperate."

Julie was furious. She couldn't understand why Dale didn't follow up on the lead. "He made me feel like because I wasn't raped or seriously hurt it wasn't that big of a deal," Julie says. "I just want a little compassion."

Julie's story isn't unusual. By the time her file found its way to the Sex Crimes Unit in August, the team of investigators had been trimmed from ten to just four. Consequently, the number of reported rapes that resulted in the arrest of a suspect had plunged dramatically, from 57 percent in 2004 to just 12 percent. (see "The Case of the Disappearing Sex Crimes Unit," 10/17/07).

After learning of the statistics, the Minneapolis City Council called on Deputy Chief Sharon Lubinski to justify the staffing cuts. She explained that they were necessary in a department struggling with a budget crunch and a desire to put more cops on the street. In a subsequent report to the council, Deputy Chief Valerie Wurster conceded that although more sex crimes cases were coming in, fewer were being assigned to investigators (880 in 2006, down from 956 in 2005). City Councilman Gary Schiff, who chairs the city's Public Safety and Regulatory Services Committee, calls the numbers "shocking." "We are seeing numbers of cases actually assigned plummeting by a third," Schiff says.

For his part, Sgt. Dale defends his handling of Julie's case. Dale insists there was nothing to be gained by talking to the owner of the white Mustang: He obviously wasn't the assailant, otherwise he wouldn't have been so eager to cooperate. The sergeant suspects that either Julie misread the license plate number, or the plates were stolen and on an unregistered car. If the latter, finding the car would be like "searching for a needle in 100 haystacks," Dale says.

"We have to prioritize," he continues, citing cases with child victims or serious injury as those that get the swiftest attention. "My phone is ringing off the hook. It's extremely frustrating when you want to do something and there are not enough hours in the day. Unfortunately, we need to sleep."

But that's little comfort to Julie, who hasn't been the same since she was accosted. "Now I don't go anywhere without my cell phone and mace, and I got a dog," she says. "There are creepy people out there and it freaks me out."

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