No Backlog: Why the Epidemic of Untested Rape Kits Is Not a Symbol of Insufficient Police Budgets But Instead a Failure to Investigate Rape
A sex crimes detective with the Memphis Police Department will keep her job despite leaking confidential investigative files to the family of a rape suspect, the Commercial Appeal reported last week. Before Detective Ouita Knowlton became the subject of a criminal investigation, she was the supervisor of the DNA Unit, which was formed in 2014 to investigate long-neglected rape cases involving untested rape kits.
A rape kit contains physical evidence collected from the body of a rape victim. In addition to using DNA to identify an unknown perpetrator, the results from testing can be used to corroborate or refute statements from the victim or suspect.
Law enforcement encourages victims to submit to forensic examination as soon as possible after an assault to maximize the chances of evidence recovery. Exams, which typically last four to six hours, can be invasive, painful, and traumatizing for victims. The evidence collected varies depending on what happened during the assault, but rape kits generally include swabs, test tubes, microscopic slides, and evidence collection envelopes for hairs and fibers. The victim is swabbed for any biological matter that may contain the perpetrator’s DNA (e.g., skin, saliva, semen). The examiner photographs any bruising or other injuries and collects the victim’s clothing. The rape kit and other crime scene evidence, such as bedding, is transferred to law enforcement to log into its evidence facility. Then it is sent to a crime lab for DNA testing to solve the case.
But instead of sending rape kits to crime labs, police departments nationwide have often stashed rape kits wherever they could find space: in evidence warehouses, precinct closets, squad car trunks, some in environments with DNA-degrading high heat and moisture.
In 2009, a Human Rights Watch report exposed over 12,000 untested rape kits in law enforcement storage throughout Los Angeles County. That same year, inquiries by the Cleveland Plain Dealer about the failure of law enforcement to stop serial rapist and mass murderer Anthony Sowell spurredthe city’s police department to announce plans to process over 4,000 untested rape kits of its own. Also in 2009, after the FBI took control of the Detroit Police Department property room, officials revealed over 8,000 rape kits in police storage had never been submitted to a lab. In 2013, the Memphis Police Department admitted it had failed to test over 12,000 rape kits. In 2014, a New Orleans Police Commander who had been lauded in 2011 for testing at least 800 unprocessed rape kits revealed the department had failed to submit more than 400 rape kits collected since 2011. In 2017, the Wayne County Prosecuting Attorney’s office admitted at least 555 rape kits collected by Detroit Police since the 2009 public outcry weren’t tested until 2015, a fact that was never announced to the public.
In response to public criticisms, law enforcement blame their failure to submit rape kits on a lack of funding for DNA testing. But according to the National Institute of Justice, additional factors include victim-blaming beliefs by police, no written protocol for submitting kits to the lab for testing, high turnover in police leadership, and lack of community-based victim advocacy services.
It’s worth noting that today’s DNA technology has not always been available to law enforcement. In 1994, Congress authorized the National DNA Index System (NDIS), but modern DNA forensic analysis was not widely used until the late 1990s. Until at least the early 2000s, use of DNA databases was not common across the nation.
But when authorities began uploading DNA profiles from convicted offenders and arrestees and from missing persons and unidentified remains, they still failed to submit rape kits to labs for DNA testing.
Ohio Public Defender Tim Young, whose office has appealed convictions based on Cleveland’s neglected rape kits, told the Plain Dealer a false narrative has taken hold in the public imagination. “We’ve had DNA testing since the mid-1990s,” he said. “They (law enforcement) were dilatory in not using it. It’s a continuation of broken police culture that places the police first, not the victims, the defendants — or justice.”
Indeed, research at Michigan State University analyzed 1,268 police reports associated with Detroit’s untested rape kits. A report released in 2015 found “most cases were closed after minimal investigational effort.”
And even with advances in DNA technology, police solve fewer rapes than they did in the past.
Nationwide, the clearance rate for rape has declined sharply in the past decade, from 51% in 1995 to approximately 40%, where it has remained stable since 2005. In some cities the clearance rate for rape is in the single digits. During this same time period, clearance rates for murder and aggravated assault barely changed.
“Clearance” is a common way to measure an agency’s success in fighting crime. There are two types of clearance: arrest and exceptional clearance. The latter occurs due to circumstances outside law enforcement’s control, such as when the suspect dies or the victim stops cooperating. In these cases, despite being considered cleared, the suspect is never arrested, charged, or referred for prosecution.
Of the 111,241 rapes known to law enforcement in 2016, only 36% were cleared. And since the FBI counts exceptional clearance in the same tally as clearance by arrest, clearance rates likely overestimate how many rapists police are putting behind bars.
Untested rape kits are not indicative of underfunded police departments. Instead, they are symptomatic of a police culture that does not properly investigate sexual assault or take victims seriously.