Recently, the rape kit backlog has been an increasingly common topic in news stories from across the country, from Ohio and Illinois to Texas and Tennessee.
In Ohio, Attorney General Mike DeWine’s Sexual Assault Kit Testing Initiative continues to result in DNA database matches and criminal indictments. While no leads have resulted yet from 41 previously untested kits submitted by the city of Athens, which includes Ohio University, law enforcement officials there recognize the value in adding DNA profiles to the database.
“The reason we’re sending them is because [the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation (BCI)] is building a DNA database,” explained Athens Police Chief Tom Pyle. “It’s a shot in the dark to send the DNA (searching for a match), but if we have a case of a serial rapist later on down the line, for example, now we’ll have a sample already in the system.”
Under the Attorney General’s Initiative, 100 Ohio law enforcement agencies have submitted nearly 3,300 backlogged kits to BCI for analysis. From the 1,331 kits on which BCI has completed testing, there have been 387 matches in the DNA database. The Cleveland Plain Dealer has done an excellent job of tracking the resulting investigations and indictments, as well as telling survivors’ stories, and Joyful Heart’s Senior Director of Policy & Advocacy, Sarah Tofte, recently contributed an op-ed in The Plain Dealer’s rape kit backlog features.
Serving as a model for the rest of Texas, Houston has sent each of the 6,600 backlogged kits it had in its custody for testing. The Houston Police Department will investigate all leads developed from testing, even in cases where the statute of limitations already expired. With the leadership of Mayor Annise Parker, city council allocated $4.4 million to clear the city’s backlog. In praising Houston’s efforts, State Senator Wendy Davis, who championed the 2011 law requiring Texas law enforcement agencies to send all rape kits for testing, said:
“It’s absolutely vital that we do everything we can to bring about justice for sexual assault survivors and take these criminals off the streets before they have the chance to commit these horrific crimes again.”
Over in Memphis and Shelby County, Tennessee, city council approved a $500,000 grant from Tennessee’s Office of Criminal Justice Programs that will assist the city in clearing its backlog. Though Memphis police officials are currently unable to articulate the extent of the backlog, they say this funding will allow for the processing of 2,226 untested kits, many of which date back to the 1980s. They anticipate all of those kits to be tested by the end of June 2014.
In the town of Robbins, Illinois, survivor Rosa Pickett is bravely speaking out about how the police losing her rape kit has effected her and her family. Thirty-six years ago, Pickett was raped when she was 17 years old.
As we shared previously, an investigation uncovered 51 untested rape kits, some dating back to the 70s, sitting in police storage facilities in Robbins. Cook County officials took over the town’s audit and began tracking its untested kits under Illinois’s 2010 law mandating the counting and testing of all rape kits. The officials have been unable to locate forty-four kits and discovered an additional 150 kits that had been submitted for testing, but Robbins police never investigated the results.
In February 2013, the police department held a town hall meeting to discuss its poor policing with the community. According to one official, had these rapes occurred just four miles north in Chicago, they would have been solved. Police officers in Robbins work part-time, making only eight dollars an hour, and face a severe lack of funding. For now, Cook County is working to train those officers and to assist with investigations of both backlogged and new rape cases.
While all of these reforms are vital to the safety of communities across the country, there is still much work to be done. It’s estimated that hundreds of thousands of untested rape kits sit in police and crime lab storage facilities across the nation, each one representing a survivor who had the courage to report the rape to the police. All states, cities and towns must commit to bringing justice and healing to survivors.