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What other cities can learn from Detroit's untested rape kits

Sep 26, 2016

Since Detroit discovered some 11,000 untested rape kits in 2009, cities around the country have tackled backlogs of their own. 

Now the city is holding a national summit for hundreds of experts, prosecutors, police and medical professionals about what Michigan – and other states – have learned in approaching tough questions: Which kits should you test first? What about kits where the statute of limitations for prosecution has expired? How can the federal criminal database help track serial rapists across states? And how should investigators approach people whose kits were abandoned years ago?

In Detroit, it starts with an apology.

“We felt very strongly that it be a trauma-informed protocol,” says Rebecca Campbell, a professor at Michigan State University and the lead researcher in a massive, federally fund investigation of how the rape kits were processed in Detroit.

“The notifications were done in person, by a very highly trained official from the prosecutor’s office, who really tried to attend first and foremost to the survivor’s well-being. The investigators offered an apology, and that’s important. They opened the conversation by apologizing for the fact that the kit had not been tested, and that we now had a multidisciplinary team that was invested in trying to right the wrong.

“Many survivors were surprised, they were shocked; some weren’t. Their reactions were highly variable. But in the end, most of the victims who were notified, decided that they did want to continue … to pursue the possibility of the case being reopened and prosecuted.”

They’ve also learned that it is worth using public funds to test the kits where the statute of limitations has already expired. Those kits turned up just as many hits in the federal criminal database as the current kits, Campbell says. And that gave prosecutors valuable information, and could even be used as evidence in current prosecutions when the suspect is a serial rapist.

Another big discovery: Backlogged rape kits are common in smaller cities and towns – not just major areas like Detroit and New York City.

Anyone who thinks their city is immune, needs “to understand what’s sitting in what's sitting in police property storage in their own city,” Campbell says. “Unfortunately, I think they will receive a, a pretty awful surprise."

The Michigan Attorney General asked cities to submit a count of untested rape kits in their jurisdictions. Backlogs turned up in Ann Arbor, Grand Rapids, Flint, Lansing, Battle Creek and several others.

Experts are still trying to understand why these kits go untested, sometimes for years. Budget and staff cuts do play a role, Campbell says. “But in general, it is coming through pretty clearly in different jurisdictions that police decide not to test the kit because they don't believe the victim.”

At least 54 convictions have come out of the kits discovered Wayne County since 2009.