SEATTLE — Seattle’s mayor is taking action against a growing backlog of sexual assault cases.
“We're hearing from victims whose cases just are not being moved forward,” said Mary Ellen Stone, CEO of the King County Sexual Assault Resource Center.
Stone has been helping victims navigate as their cases are stalled.
“What makes Seattle unique is that they weren't notifying people of what was happening, either. So victims were really just waiting and wondering what if anything was going to happen or not,” said Stone.
That’s something Seattle Mayor Bruce Harrel and Interim Police Chief Adrian Diaz are working to change with a new executive order that calls for a systemic review of the department’s investigation practices, expands support services for victims, and assigns a detective to outstanding cases.
The order includes a deadline of August 31st for felony crimes with sufficient evidence allowing for a follow-up investigation.
“It really sort of lays out a framework of what we as advocates have been asking for some time. So I'm encouraged with that,” said Stone.
The backlog is blamed on staffing shortages. This was evident in a May internal memo showing sexual assault detectives having to triage cases, focusing on those cases involving children and vulnerable adults.
Harrell's office says officer staffing is at a more than 30-year low with an exodus of more than 400 officers in less than three years.
The mayor has a police recruitment and retention plan, seeking to raise the number of deployable officers to 1,450.
Stone said it can be hard on survivors who come forward, as they wait in limbo.
“When that effort is ignored it just sort of minimizes the whole experience that people went through both the sexual assault as well as their efforts to say, I should tell somebody about this,” said Stone.
Detectives refer cases to the King County Prosecutor's Office. Data from the prosecutor’s office shows the number of referrals dropping after 2020, but it thinks the new plan will help.
“The more detectives there are the better it is for prosecutors because we need someone to investigate those reports to get them to us,” said Casey McNerthney, spokesperson for the King County Prosecutor’s office.
McNerthney said prosecutors want to collaborate with police and support services and recently added a director of victim’s services and additional victim advocates.
Several advocacy groups including King County Sexual Assault Resource Center sent a letter to the mayor's office and King County prosecutor the same day of Mayor Harrell’s executive order. It calls for several actions by September 1st including cases to be referred to prosecutors within 60 days of the victim’s interview.
“We also ask for the prosecutor and law enforcement to work together to see how they could expedite these cases because investigation is one part of it,” said Stone.
“We hear them and we’re absolutely open to working collaboratively. Survivors and the groups that help them are the most important,” said McNerthney.
McNerthney said sometimes cases don’t have enough evidence to go forward but that doesn’t mean they don’t believe the victim.
Stone said King County Sexual Assault Resource Center responds to 5,000 people a year.
“We're here for anybody who feels like they want to talk through something that happened. Maybe it was yesterday, maybe it was 20 years ago. We know that it takes time for people to speak out,” said Stone.
If you are a victim or survivor of sexual assault you can call King County’s Sexual Assault Resource Center’s 24-hour hotline for help at 1-888-99-VOICE.