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WVC police say changes to handling of sexual assault cases have improved outcomes

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WEST VALLEY CITY, Utah -- West Valley City police made a big announcement Thursday regarding how they treat sexual assault cases.

The department said they have proof that their new system of investigation encourages more victims to come forward and puts more suspects behind bars.

Chief Lee Russo admitted that for years they mishandled how they treated sexual assault victims. Then in 2014 they began to do things a little differently, and it all started with one major step - listening.

"Victims, survivors, need to know that it's OK to come forward, they need to know that there are law enforcement agencies that do believe what they have to say," Michelle Worthen, a survivor, said.

Worthen first met with the  West Valley City Police Department in September 2015 after she says she was sexually assaulted inside her own home.

She said it was the most difficult thing she's ever been through, but the detective made her feel comfortable.

"It was free of judgment and interrogation, it was just basically open dialogue, 'tell us what happened, we'll get everything down as best we can and it's OK,'" Worthen said.

This new, more sympathetic approach to interviewing victims was implemented in 2014. Police say they were in need of a major overhaul.

"More often than not we were handling investigations like Joe Friday in Dragnet, just the facts, the who, what, when, where," Russo said.

A study from the National Institute of Justice proved this approach wasn't working. Between 2003 and 2011, only 6 percent of sexual assault cases in Salt Lake County were prosecuted.

"How the victim is treated by law enforcement, by first responders, can affect their whole lifetime on how they can recover," said BYU researcher Dr. Julie Valentine.

Valentine did a follow-up study, focusing just on West Valley City, to see if their new approach to interviewing victims made a difference, and she found that it did.

Between May of 2014 and May 2015, 24 percent of sexual assault cases were prosecuted in West Valley City.

"This interviewing process is a game changer, it changes what we see, it changes how we handle cases," prosecutor Donna Kelly said.

Worthen says what's most important is that it gives victims faith in the system that justice will be served and they can find closure.

"You can't heal when you have a lifelong secret hidden deep inside of you," Worthen said.

West Valley City said another key step they have taken is that every single rape kit is submitted for testing.