Salt Lake County Councilmember comments on sexual assault cases raises concerns among advocates

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SALT LAKE CITY (ABC4 News) – Comments made by a Salt Lake County council member in Tuesday night’s meeting are not sitting well with sexual assault advocates. It came after Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill asked for funding to hire more prosecutors for his Special Victims Unit.

With three and a half weeks left in the year, Gill said his office received 130 more sexual assault cases than last year. In 2018, they screened 1,628 cases. So far in 2019, they’ve screen 1,758 cases.

“The average caseload should be around 50 to 60 cases per sexual assault prosecutor. We average about 130 cases per attorney,” said Gill.

Councilmember Shireen Ghorbani, who also sits on the board for the Rape Recovery Center, agreed that more needs to be done for sexual assault victims.

“We have a problem with sexual violence in our community. Over the last six years, there’s been a 535 percent increase in the number of rape kits that have been collected. I can tell you this firsthand, we have seen the numbers month after month growing of people taking the time going through the painful, often traumatizing experience of getting evidence collected after a sexual assault,” she said.

The need is so dire that Gill said he’s had to ‘cannibalize’ his homicide team and reallocate resources to the Special Victims Unit (SVU) team. It’s a comment that led to this response from Councilmember Steve Debry: “When somebody gets killed and you have to take someone to court, and prosecute them, and get them justice served for those people, I would say that is pretty much important or more important than a victim of sexual assault.”

After the exchange, the councilmen explained his position to ABC4’s Jason Nguyen.

“I don’t like hearing ‘cannibalizing a homicide unit’ to do it, because we are funding him [Gill] appropriately,” said Debry. “That county council felt like he was funded appropriately at this point and as we proceed down this road, we may fund him even more. But, I certainly didn’t like that he is ‘cannibalizing’ his homicide unit.”

Erin Kennelly, a sexual assault victim who shared her story of survival during the meeting’s public comment said Debry’s comments were devastating. Kennelly says she’s waited more than three years with no form of justice served to her perpetrator because of the lack of resources. 

Sexual assault advocates said it’s detrimental for those who feel like they don’t matter.

“I think it’s uninformed and I don’t know exactly what he was trying to express. But, I think the message we’re hearing from survivors is that was really hard for them to hear from someone who has authority and decision-making power to be dismissive,” said Jenn Oxborrow the Executive Director for Utah Domestic Violence Coalition. “What we know from our research and data is, preventing a sexual assault and adequately prosecuting it is homicide prevention.”

Oxborrow explained that the longer a survivor waits on their cases, the more it adds to their trauma.

“More than half of our homicides are perpetrated by current or former intimate partners. So when someone has to wait for justice, access to care, or they have a prolonged evidence process, it’s adding insult to injury in an already terrible situation,” she adds.

Gill feels Debry’s comments were dismissive of sexual assault victims.

“To try to say that one victim is more worthy than another victim in a violent offense, I think, misses the point of the pain and loss that victim or that victim’s family is suffering,” said Gill. “Neither I or this office will ever apologize for advocating for victims, because they deserve a measure of justice. They deserve, especially when it comes to these kind of cases, the invested oversight, care, and follow-through that is necessary for these kinds of cases.” 

Ghorbani said she felt like the comment was inappropriate.

“I am not ever going to try to define for somebody what their experience is when it comes to being a victim of crime,” said Ghorbani. “What I know is our job on the council is to make sure that we are appropriately funding the offices that are dealing with and addressing the needs of victims in our community, and I’m going to stand with victims every time.”

The county council voted to fund six SVU prosecutors – allowing four to be hired now, and the other two next year. 

“I was disappointed with the outcome. It was less than what Sim asked for. I think it’s deeply troubling when we are looking at the rates of violence in our community and don’t see full bipartisan support around making sure we have resources in place to see those cases through,” said Ghorbani.

Debry serves as the Chief of Police for Unified Police’s Millcreek Precinct. His boss, Sheriff Rosie Rivera told ABC4 News Wednesday, Debry’s comments were not reflective of the department’s views, and they take every sexual assault case seriously.

ABC4 News also inquired with Millcreek Mayor and UPD Board Member Jeff Silvestrini about Debry’s comments. Read his response here.

Ghorbani said Gill could return as soon as January to ask for the other two SVU prosecutors. The council will revisit this issue again mid-next year when county needs will be reevaluated. 

Requests made by ABC4 News for comment from Debry and the Salt Lake County GOP were not returned on Wednesday.

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