Senate Bill 8117 was solidified as a New York state law last fall. Signed by governor Andrew M. Cuomo, the bill strengthened the existing law regarding sexual assault evidence collection and testing procedures. Police agencies now have only ten days to submit rape kits to forensic labs, and the lab must process the evidence and share the results with both the submitting department and the local DA within about three months.
These fast turnaround times were created to eliminate New York’s backlog of untested rape kits. Evidence can’t collect on shelves if the law mandates it to be tested quickly - unless the law isn’t being followed.
Our request with Monroe, New York - a town of 39,000 residents situated less than a two hour drive north of New York City - showed that, despite the new law, the police department currently has three kits that haven’t been sent to a lab for processing.
In one case, a kit was not processed because an arrest was made. This seems to be a consistent practice in many departments across the country, like in San Jose, for example, which we’ve previously examined. But an arrest should not preclude evidence testing. As seen time and time again, rapists are often serial offenders, often in multiple cities and states, meaning their DNA can help solve - and prevent - future crimes. A robust database of criminal DNA is absolutely necessary to maintain, and it’s why the law must require every kit to be tested, and why every department must comply.
Despite this, Monroe does have notably good practices in place for treating victims and gathering the evidence. Their guidebook calls sexual assault a “loathsome and disturbing crime,” and shows an understanding that victims will often be traumatized and must be treated with sensitivity and understanding.
It also underscores the importance of assuring the victim that they are not at fault for their crime. This is language that we haven’t seen yet in other department guidelines, but is incredibly important.
Our culture of victim blaming is one reason why rape is so underreported and why departments often fail to prioritize these cases. But while the Monroe Police Department looks good on paper, failing to test even one kit means they are failing to contribute to a database that solves and prevents crimes across state lines. Read Monroe’s full policies here.