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The Case of the Disappearing Sex Crimes Unit

JUNE 20, 2007: A 12-year-old girl walks into a north Minneapolis high school saying she had been abducted five days earlier and raped repeatedly by a group of men she didn't know. At one point, she was raped in a black Monte Carlo by a man she can only identify as having a brother people call "Spud."

Sgt. Bernard Martinson, a veteran of the Minneapolis Police Department's Sex Crimes Unit, comes to meet the girl and hear her story. A vaginal swab turns up semen and is sent to the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension for examination.

The DNA matches 26-year-old Harold T. Davis, a convicted felon who had been pulled over by police on June 3 driving a black Monte Carlo. Sgt. Martinson finds Davis, who says his brother "Spud" loaned him a Monte Carlo in the middle of June.

According to a police report, Davis denies having sex with the girl and says he has no idea how his semen ended up in her vagina. He's in the Hennepin County jail on $150,000 bail, charged with first-degree criminal sexual conduct. If convicted, he faces up to 30 years in prison.

 

Conclusions like this one are increasingly rare in Minneapolis. Investigative units measure success by something they call a "clearance rate"—the percentage of reported crimes that lead to an arrest. The 10-year high for the Sex Crimes Unit was 57 percent in 2004. Last year, the rate fell to 26 percent—just 1 percent above a 10-year low.

This year, with data available through August, the unit's clearance rate is 12 percent.

Translation: For roughly nine out of every ten rapes reported to the police, there is a victim waiting to hear word of an arrest.

Meanwhile, the number of reported rapes in Minneapolis has been rising steadily—from 362 in 2002 to 453 last year—even as the number of reported rapes nationwide continues a decades-long decline.

Why rapes are going up is a mystery, but why they are not getting solved is not: The Sex Crimes Unit of the Minneapolis Police Department has seen striking cuts to its human resources. The unit has gone from ten investigators in 2002 to just four today, and two of the investigators are relatively new to the job.

Mike Schlitz, former president of the Minnesota Sex Crimes Investigators Association and a longtime sex crimes investigator in Duluth, calls the cuts "a nightmare."

The work of the Sex Crimes Unit is daunting and hardly limited to rape cases. The unit's four investigators deal with peeping toms, flashers, stalkers, and pedophiles. Then there are the registered sex offenders: The Sex Crimes Unit keeps tabs on more than 1,300 of them.

These four investigators are "the cream of the crop" says Lt. Mike Sauro, who ran the unit from 2001 to 2003, "but the burnout factor is going to hit. I've seen it already." When that happens, he says, "Cases start to slip through the cracks."

When Schlitz was working sex crimes in Duluth, his unit faced its own dramatic cuts. The result, he says, was easy to quantify: "If you have 40 percent of the investigators, you're going to get about 40 percent of the work done. It makes you shudder to think of the cases that aren't being worked."

A diminished investigative capacity has meant fewer arrests, which means fewer cases are being bumped to the prosecutor.

"This isn't CSI, where everything gets solved by the end of the show," says Hennepin County Deputy Attorney Pat Diamond, who adds that the quality of the investigations he's seeing is as good as ever—there are just fewer of them.

In 2004, the Sex Crimes Unit submitted 178 cases of sexual assault where adults were the victims. In 2005, the number dropped to 139. Last year, it dropped again, to 128. Meanwhile, say staff at the Hennepin County prosecutor's office, the numbers in suburban jurisdictions have held steady or increased.

For people who work with survivors of sexual violence, there is an added layer of failure in these numbers.

"For all kinds of social and community reasons, it is very rare for a victim to come forward and report a sexual assault," says Donna Dunn, executive director of the Minnesota Coalition Against Sexual Abuse. "What I see this meaning is, on those rare instances that someone says, 'I'm going to report this,' the system is not able to respond."

* * * * *

SEPTEMBER 18, 2007: Terrence Harrell stops by an acquaintance's house, where he is introduced to her 16-year-old niece. That night, the girl's aunt is away and she's alone in the apartment with her boyfriend. Harrell calls and asks if he can come by and "kick it" with her. She declines.

A little later the boyfriend leaves and the girl is preparing for a bath. There's a knock on the door. She opens it, expecting her boyfriend has returned. It's Harrell.

 

According to a police report, Harrell forces his way inside and pushes her to the ground. He holds her down, pulls her pants to her ankles, and rapes her. When he hears the slamming of the building's security door, he jumps up. "You're lucky I didn't leave any bruises," he tells her. Then he's gone.

In a police interview, Harrell says he knows the girl is just 16. He denies having raped her. He's in custody now and faces charges of first-degree burglary and third-degree criminal sexual conduct. The burglary conviction would earn him up to 20 years in prison. The rape, up to 15. Harrell posted a $100,000 bond. There is a protection order against him.

* * * * *

The Minneapolis Sex Crimes Unit has seen its share of lean times. In 1991, detectives in the unit sent an eight-page complaint to the City Council and police administrators. They were dealing with a jump in sex crimes and they didn't have the personnel to handle it. Cases were languishing.

Eighteen months later, the "South Side Rapist" was on the streets and in the headlines, having raped 14 women in two years. A task force of 12 Minneapolis investigators was assembled to hunt him down. Eventually, he turned himself in. Timothy Baugh, barely old enough to buy booze, was handed the largest prison sentence in Minnesota history: 139 2/3 years.

"I guarantee you," a detective from the still-strained Sex Crimes Unit told a local reporter as the hunt intensified, "within six weeks it will be back to business as usual."

The detective was only half right. Before the "South Side Rapist," the Sex Crimes Unit kept track of cases using an unwieldy file-card system. By the time the frenzy was over, a local businessman, outraged to learn that the Sex Crimes Unit had not yet entered the digital age, drove down to City Hall and donated a computer.

One day, an investigator walked over to the computer and started entering information from the file cards. Soon the unit had a database that included each sex offender's name, age, ethnicity, and last known address.

Today the database is an essential tool for sex crimes investigators. It's been used to solve robberies and even homicides. The story of its creation—by an already overburdened investigator who decided to take on an elaborate data entry project on a donated computer—is police department lore.

* * * * *

The number of investigators working sex crimes peaked at 10 in 2001. That was the year Lt. Sauro was brought on to manage the unit. By the time he left in 2003, there were eight investigators. The downsizing had begun.

Initially, the unit thrived, hitting the 10-year-high 57 percent clearance rate in 2004. But the next year, Police Chief Bill McManus peeled another investigator off, and the unit's statistics started to drop.

Today, the proportion of investigators to reported rapes is roughly equivalent to what the unit faced in 1991, when investigators took the unusual step of bucking their lieutenant and taking their complaints public.

The decline spans three police chiefs. With his retirement in 2003, Robert Olson ended a rocky nine-year run as chief, during which the city paid out an average of nearly a million dollars a year to victims of police misconduct. Cuts in federal "Clinton Cops" funding—a late-'90s initiative to put more cops on the street—meant officers who left the force weren't replaced. Under the Bush administration, funding has all but dried up, down roughly 90 percent from its peak. Olson had to make some tough decisions—one of them was to cannibalize investigations to get more beat cops.

Enter "the reformer." Bill McManus was brought in to help the tarnished department earn back the trust of the neighborhoods it served. He moved to Minneapolis ahead of his family and for a while lived in a rectory, studying up on the police department that was now his to run. McManus took his reformer post so seriously that eventually Mayor R.T. Rybak had to tell him to smile more in public.

McManus put a premium on police accountability. In the midst of a budget crunch, he created an Office of Professional Standards to evaluate complaints against the department. At the same time, he continued what Olson had started: the gutting of investigative units in favor of cops on the street. The "Clinton Cops" cuts were felt acutely under McManus as the number of sworn officers in Minneapolis fell from an all-time high of 930 in 1998 to 785 in 2005.

The chief cut his second term short in 2006 amid whispers of a rift with the mayor. He took a job as chief in San Antonio.

 

The Sex Crimes Unit had seen peak performance early on in McManus's short foreshortened run. But by the time he left, the unit was in a serious decline. That trend would only accelerate under McManus's soft-spoken, straight-talking successor, Tim Dolan.

* * * * *

OCTOBER 4, 2007: According to a police report, a woman in her 50s is at home and hears a knock at the door. It's August Kihlgren, her best friend's brother; she's known him for 27 years. He says his car broke down in front of her house and he wants to come inside and wait for the engine to cool down. She invites him in. He falls asleep on the couch and she wakes him, reminding him to check on the car. He goes out and comes back in. Nothing. He asks if he can spend the night. She says no. He goes back to the couch and falls asleep. When she wakes him up again he stands up and punches her in the face. She falls to the ground and he starts to strangle her.

The woman's 16-year-old daughter, who has cerebral palsy, is watching, helpless, from a nearby bed. Kihlgren drags the girl's mother by the neck into another room, out of the daughter's line of sight. He tells her to remove her clothes. She refuses. He tears her clothes off and takes off some of his own clothes. "I'm gonna fuck you," he tells her.

He demands oral sex. She does it with his hand on her neck, squeezing every time she does something he doesn't like. They're on the floor and he orders her to flip over. As he fingers her she manages to turn on a cordless phone and dial 911. She leaves the phone where it is, connected to an operator.

The operator hears moaning and dispatches a squad car. Suspecting a rape, police set up a perimeter around the house to catch anybody fleeing the scene.

There's a knock on the door. It's the police. Kihlgren runs out the back and the woman opens the door naked, wrapped in a blanket and crying hysterically. Her face is swollen and there are red marks on her neck.

Kihlgren is pulled from some bushes nearby and taken to jail, where he refuses to talk to investigators. He's facing up to 30 years in prison for first-degree sexual assault. Kihlgren's bond is set at $150,000. He has pleaded not guilty.

* * * * *

At City Hall, Chief Dolan flips the light switch in a conference room and stands in front of a giant whiteboard that shows where each Minneapolis police officer is assigned. Dolan is looking at the investigative units. He points at Sex Crimes, Robbery, Weapons, and Assault. "I wish we had more staffing in all of those units," he says. "But we also want to have a proactive balance on the street. We've got well over 75 percent of our force out there in blue shirts." Dolan recites his bottom line: "A crime prevented is worth 10 times as much as a crime solved."

He says the decision to trim the Sex Crimes Unit to four was "a conscious one" and that his priority is putting cops on the street. "If you went into the community," Dolan says, "and asked, 'Do you want another sex crimes investigator downtown or another beat officer uptown?,' they'll tell you they want the beat officer."

The department's sworn officer count is hovering around 850 now. In his August 2006 budget address, Mayor R.T. Rybak promised to bring the police force to roughly 900 sworn officers. One year after Rybak's promise, Minneapolis is still a long way from the 900 mark. In his latest budget address this month, Rybak promised 18 new cops for 2008. Now he's facing an organized campaign—a joint effort by leaders of the Republican and Independence parties—to discredit him for breaking a promise.

"The mayor said five times we'd have 893 cops and we never got there," says John Delmonico, president of the police union. "You can put all the cops you want on the street, but if you can't follow up, what's the point? Investigations are the meat and potatoes of dealing with serious criminals."

As a first line of defense against his more-cops critics, Rybak points to the numbers: Violent crime in 2007 is down 14 percent citywide. He's urged his critics to focus on results, not head counts.

The mayor's second line of defense: Tell it to the governor. Rybak blames police staffing issues on cuts to Local Government Aid in 2003, which cost Minneapolis $37 million initially. Some of that money was restored in 2005, but Rybak says there is still a long way to go. "If the state puts more money into the city, I would willingly increase these special divisions," he says.

 

The governor's office did not return several phone calls requesting comment, but Delmonico isn't buying Rybak's strapped-for-cash defense. "The mayor loves to blame Local Government Aid cuts," he says, pointing out that reductions in the investigative units predate the cuts in Local Government Aid, and that St. Paul, facing the same cuts, is protected by the largest force of sworn officers in the city's history. "It gets into priorities."

* * * * *

FROM A LETTER DATED JUNE 5, 1991: Dear Sgt. Martinson, I don't know if you remember me or not—you were the investigating officer in my rape case.

The man that raped me was successfully prosecuted and is serving time...after which he has to complete chemical dependency and sex offender treatment programs.

I just want to thank you for everything that you did. I was extremely frightened to even come in and give a statement, much less face the possibility of a trial. However, you were so patient, kind, and understanding that I did go through with the whole thing.

I have begun to put my life back together—returned to college to finish my degree and am working two jobs at present. I don't think any of that would have been possible without your professional and compassionate handling of my case.

You are truly a blessing.

* * * * *

Sex Crimes isn't the kind of assignment cops tend to make a career of. Bernard Martinson is an exception. He's been with the unit since spring 1989.

That was three years after the accident that almost ended his career. In 1986, when he was a young patrol officer, he was frisking a subject when a drunk driver crashed into a parked car, smashing his left leg below the knee. Twenty-six surgeries later, he still walked with a limp. There was no way he could do street patrols, so he transferred to Homicide, then Internal Affairs. In 1989, he landed in Sex Crimes.

On file at the police department are endless letters of thanks. A state senator appreciated his testimony in favor of a three-strikes law in Minnesota. An advocate working for a rape crisis center is grateful for his help training volunteers. The chief of police in Buffalo thanks him for offering his services in a rape case. There are notes from the police chief, from landlords of buildings-turned-crime scenes, from prosecutors, and from victims.

"I would give him cases with very few leads just to see what he could do with them," says Sauro, Martinson's supervisor from 2001 to 2003. "In 48 hours, he'd have the guy in jail with a confession."

In 1997, two Minneapolis lieutenants, recommending Martinson for a Medal of Commendation, wrote that the indefatigable investigator "consistently reads all assault, robbery, and sex crimes reports on a daily basis."

Remember the officer who walked over to the donated computer and started a database? That was Martinson.

Lt. Sauro stresses that Martinson could have taken a disability pension long ago, but he's stayed on to solve cases, sometimes cases he wasn't assigned. "He goes above and beyond the above and beyond," Sauro says.

After Martinson, the next most experienced officer has logged six and a half years with the unit. The two remaining investigators each came on this year. The lieutenant in charge started in August.

Martinson is so integral to the unit that multiple transfer requests have been refused by his superiors. His last attempt, in 1996, was denied on the basis that losing him would cripple the Sex Crimes Unit.

"This officer is the highest producer in the unit," wrote his superior. "Several new officers are being added and the loss of this officer at present will cause a drastic drop in productivity and effectiveness."

If, back in 1996, the loss of Martinson would have been "drastic," we can only imagine what it would mean for today's decimated Sex Crimes Unit.


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