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How Often Do Rape Kits Go Unprocessed?

(Image: Evidence kit via Shutterstock)

In February 2012, a woman named Jessica Ripley was raped in a Salt Lake City parking garage. Nicole Wilcox found her sister beaten and bloodied, and rushed her to the LDS Hospital for treatment. Hospital staff called on the Salt Lake City Police Department (SLCPD) to investigate – but when the responding officer arrived, his reaction was less than compassionate.

Wilcox recalls the officer being “very judgmental,” grilling her barely-coherent sister about what she was doing drinking so much at a club he would “never allow his daughter” to visit. Later Ripley would tell her diary, “My case wasn’t important enough to check evidence immediately or be reported on the news, cause I’m some dumb, f——-g drunk girl who they think consented and somehow beat herself up and bruised and cut herself and is making it all up; because I was drinking, my case doesn’t matter.”

Imagine Ripley’s frustration when she attended a Salt Lake City Council meeting in April, over two years after her attack, only to learn that the SLCPD abandoned 79 percent of its rape kits to collect dust on the shelves. Out of approximately 1,000 kits collected from 2003 to 2011, a total of 788 were either destroyed or left untouched – along with any evidence that may have been waiting inside.

Only about one in five kits were ever examined.

SLCPD Chief Chris Burbank defended the ratio, stating an indepth examination was not called for in many cases. That stance is supported by Salt Lake City Deputy Chief Terry Fritz, who said, “If we don’t know a crime has been committed, we don’t want to analyze a rape kit.”

Burbank also made assurances that the cost of analyzing “Code R” kits – about $1,100 each – was not a factor.

Fortunately, the SLCPD has since implemented tangible positive changes. After the meeting in April, the department launched its “Code R Project,” and now posts anonymous kit-processing updates online, including notes about charges and criminal prosecution.

“This is unprecedented transparency so you can see how the cases are investigated,” Burbank said. “You will see the reasons why the evidence is processed or not.”

But while the Code R Project is certainly a step in the right direction, two alarming facts remain: Most rape victims don’t report the crime in the first place, and in the rare instances that they do, their kits often go unprocessed.

News Report Uncovers At Least 20,000 Unprocessed Rape Kits in the US

A January 2014 White House report titled “Rape and Sexual Assault: A Renewed Call to Action” states, “Although there is not reliable national data, in recent years, media reports have revealed that thousands of rape kits have either not been forwarded to crime labs or are backlogged at the labs waiting to be tested.” (The National Institute of Justice classifies a rape kit as “backlogged” if it has not been tested within 30 days of submission to a crime lab.)

One of the “media reports” to which the White House report refers in lieu of “reliable national data” is a 2009 investigation by CBS News. Over the course of five months, CBS uncovered a minimum of 20,000 unprocessed kits across the country, including:

  • 1,050 in Rhode Island
  • 1,116 in Albuquerque
  • 3,777 in Los Angeles
  • 3,846 in Houston
  • 5,191 in San Antonio
  • 5,800 in Detroit

The above numbers refer strictly to untested kits. Other departments were able to give CBS investigators a general number, but added they weren’t sure how many had been tested, and which remained to be processed. Examples from that category include:

  • 1,248 in Ohio
  • 2,100 in Alabama
  • 4,100 in Arizona

Other departments admitted to simply not knowing how many kits they had in possession. Those departments included:

  • Anchorage
  • Baltimore
  • Columbus
  • Jacksonville

Fortunately, some departments took a more aggressive approach, and did report testing every kit they received, including:

  • Chicago
  • New York City
  • Philadelphia

“How could we not?” said Philadelphia Police Department Forensic Science Center lab manager Joseph Szarka.

But not all forces share that attitude. The Oakland Police Department determined that 489 of its backlogged kits were classified as “solvable,” but were simply never analyzed. When asked why, Lt. Kevin Wiley answered, “It was not a priority for the Oakland Police Department.” San Diego also issued a dismissive response, with CBS reporting, “a spokesperson for the San Diego PD told CBS News it had stopped counting in order to meet other priorities, according to Lt. Richard O’Hanlon of the San Diego PD.”

Why Do So Many Rape Kits Go Unprocessed?

Perhaps it is unfair to make such a determination based on just a few brief sentences without a larger context; but dubbing solvable rape crimes non-priority sounds suspiciously like dubbing rape victims non-priority. That certainly echoes the outraged sentiment expressed by Jessica Ripley in her diary, and may also explain, at least in part, why so many rape victims do not report the incidents to police – 75,000 in 2008 alone, according to the FBI. That’s 75,000 cases that never saw criminal prosecution, never involved a suspect or a witness, never brought in a criminal defense lawyer or went before a judge in court. What, specifically, could be causing this under reporting phenomenon?

According to the White House report, “research shows that some police officers still believe certain rape myths (e.g. that many women falsely claim rape to get attention), which may help account for the low rates. Similarly, if victims do not behave the way some police officers expect (e.g. crying) an officer may believe she is making a false report – when, in reality, only 2-10 percent of reported rapes are false.”

Like Ripley in Utah, Valerie Neumann of Kentucky had a similar negative experience interacting with the police. “I feel like they didn’t do their job to protect me and to protect everyone else,” she said. Neumann also feels let down by the Kenton County Prosecutor’s Office, which left her a voicemail to say, “We just cannot process that DNA. We cannot get the funds for that because there are other issues with the case and we can’t use that state money.”

A 2011 National Institute of Justice report titled “The Road Ahead: Unanalyzed Evidence in Sexual Assault Cases” found that among more than 2,000 surveyed police departments:

  • 11 percent did not sends kits for processing due to slow turnaround on the crime lab’s behalf.
  • 15 percent did not send kits for processing because no prosecutor ever requested evidence.
  • 44 percent did not send kits for processing because no suspect was identified.

The White House report estimates that one in five women will be raped at some point in their lives, along with about one in 71 men. The report identified some of the highest-risk groups as multiracial women (33.5 percent, National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey), bisexual women (46 percent, CDC), female college students (20 percent, The Campus Sexual Assault Study), and homeless women (13 percent, Journal of General Internal Medicine).