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Police in Meridian Township, Michigan, dismissed a 2004 complaint against gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar, a decision that allowed him to continue abusing young women for a decade. Then they went public with their mistake.
In 2004, 17-year-old Brianne Randall-Gay reported a sexual assault to police in Meridian Township, Michigan. She’d seen a new sports doctor for help with chronic back pain, and she told investigators that he had molested her during the exam. His name, she said, was Larry Nassar.
Nassar, the doctor for the U.S. gymnastics team and at nearby Michigan State University, told police that he was used to working with gymnasts, and since Randall-Gay wasn’t one, she’d simply misunderstood his actions. Police dismissed the case and did not forward the complaint to the county prosecutor.
Nassar would go on to assault hundreds of other women, eventually receiving a de facto life sentence in 2018 after pleading guilty to 10 counts of sexual assault. Officials in Meridian Township learned of their mistake in 2016, shortly after allegations began to publicly surface against Nassar from other women.
Township Manager Frank Walsh hadn’t worked for the municipality when Randall-Gay first brought her complaint to police there. Faced with the task of responding to the error, he chose to listen to his heart.
“I decided that this will be now, and in the future, all about her,” Walsh said Monday at a presentation at ICMA’s annual conference in Nashville. “We said, ‘We’re going to investigate what happened, we’re going to apologize, and finally, we’re going to foster change.’ And we have fostered change within our police department. Because this can’t happen again.”
Walsh, working with Police Chief Ken Plaga, began by contacting Randall-Gay, who now resides in Seattle. The first 18 minutes of that phone call, placed on a Friday afternoon, were “nothing but tears,” he said. She told him that she’d considered returning to Michigan to face Nassar in court, but had a newborn son and wasn’t sure she could pay for the airfare.
“And it just jumped out of my mouth,” Walsh said. “I said, ‘What if we pay your way?’”
By Monday, Randall-Gay was in Walsh’s office. On Tuesday, she asked him to accompany her to court, where she stood in a packed courtroom to read a victim impact statement.
Forming a relationship with Randall-Gay was crucial, Walsh said, but he wanted to go further. Two weeks later, he scheduled a press conference with national media, disclosing publicly that the department had failed to act on her complaint and accepting responsibility for the mistake that allowed Nassar to continue abusing young girls. The township, he said, was committed to making sure nothing like that would ever happen again.
“We promised Brianne that we would do better,” he said. “And if there’s anything that I do left in my career it’s to make sure that our department is better going forward.”
Randall-Gay later told journalist Abigail Pesta, who wrote a book about the Nassar case, that she had "complicated" feelings about the town's apology, given that if she had been taken seriously in 2004 a serial predator could have been stopped. She expressed similar ambivalence about the department's review of how her case was handled, an 88-page report that was released earlier this year. Noting both her anger and sympathy for the officers who didn't take her complaint seriously, Randall-Gay in a statement at the time said, "My hope is that the evidence submitted in this investigation will help the township address these failures and ensure that they are able to provide victims the support and access to the justice system that they deserve."
At the ICMA conference, Walsh said his focus on changing the police department involved directing the agency, under Plaga’s leadership, to work on three main tasks. The first was to review every sexual assault complaint filed from the year 2000 on. Through 16 years, the department had transitioned through four different record-keeping systems, Plaga said. So police officers combed through thousands of paper records. (There were no other reports on Nassar, but Plaga reopened seven unrelated cases, he said.)
Next, the department worked with Randall-Gay to implement a community-based program on sexual assault prevention and awareness. That training, now in its second year, teaches community members (school officials, civic leaders, business owners) the signs and indicators of sexual assault.
Finally, the police department underwent updated training on the response and investigation of sexual assault. The training teaches officers to conduct what Plaga calls “victim-centered investigations,” reflecting best practices that have changed dramatically in the last 20 years.
“The information provided then compared to now is night and day,” he said. ”Clearly, Brianne’s case was not victim-centered, because we did not listen to the victim. You have to make sure that training is up to speed, because what officers receive in their initial training is often not enough.”
The police department completely overhauled its approach to sexual assault cases, Plaga said. There’s now a full-time, specially trained detective who fields all sexual assault-related complaints, a sensitivity that’s necessary given the township’s proximity to a major university. But that decision comes with its own challenges, he added.
“I have to make sure she gets the support she needs,” he said. “There are 100 cases that come across her desk a year now, and that’s just one person.”
Being transparent about its shortcomings helped the police department improve and allowed the community a chance to heal, Walsh said, though going public was seen, by some, as risky.
“People were all saying, ‘Brianne is going to sue you, you’re going to be sued by a lot of people over what you missed,’” he said. “That possibly could be true … but we wanted to do the right thing, from the heart, and deal with this issue with compassion. What we hope you take away from this is the instinctive leadership that’s really important in management, versus what your insurance carrier and your PR firms are telling you to do.”
Kate Elizabeth Queram is a Staff Correspondent for Route Fifty and is based in Washington, D.C.