Counting the Uncounted: The Sexual Assault Evidence Collection Kit Project
Through a series of public records requests with police departments ranging from small midwestern towns to New York City, we’re gathering data on evidence collection policies and untested kits throughout the United States. We’ve found some glaring inconsistencies along the way, and we believe it’s important to expose all of this. It is impossible to end the backlog without knowing its full extent or the laws that work to create it. With your help, we can work toward achieving this.
Your support will pay for fees associated with obtaining these documents and for the hours of reporting after they are released.
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“I’m a survivor of a sexual assault and a survivor of the backlog,” said Natasha Alexenko in a statement to END THE BACKLOG. She was raped and robbed at gunpoint in 1993. The perpetrator, a stranger to her, wasn’t found until 10 years later, right before the statute of limitations was up, when her rape kit was finally processed.
Far from rare, what happened to Alexenko is also happening to at least 175,000 other people in the country. That is the number of untested rape kits languishing in evidence collection rooms from coast to coast–and that number is incomplete, because no federal law requires police departments to report this number.
The law, as it stands, allows the backlog to exist and flourish. This is outrageous and inexcusable, so we’re stepping in to help.
Victims deserve to feel justice, and rape should be treated like every other violent crime. What’s more, testing backlogged kits has effects reaching beyond just one victim. Every time a perpetrator’s DNA is uploaded into the Combined DNA Index System (CODIS), that database gets stronger, leading to convictions of serial rapists and exoneration of the falsely accused. We have seen this happen countless times:
In 2011, the Sexual Assault Kit Testing Initiative was launched by the Ohio Attorney General. A resultant 13,931 kits have been submitted for testing as of Jan. 2017. Nathan Ford, who was already serving 138 years in prison for raping eight women, was linked to 14 more assaults after this initiative.
In 2003 in Detroit, Michigan, DeShawn Starks raped two women. Their kits sat untested for 10 years. In 2013, Starks raped two more women, whose kits were tested right away. CODIS matched his profile to all four crimes. Had the kits from 2003 been tested sooner, Starks may not have raped the two other women in 2013.
In 2014, 57-year-old Michael Phillips, who had spent 12 years in prison for a rape he did not commit, was cleared of all charges. The kit from the 16-year-old victim had finally been tested, and DNA evidence linked the crime to the real perpetrator.
Image via RAINN.org
Ending the backlog is not just about punishing one specific criminal for one specific crime–it is about treating sexual assault as seriously as other violent crimes and preventing future offenses. Someone is sexually assaulted every two minutes in the United States. It is immoral that this isn’t being treated with the urgency and severity it deserves. You can help us fix that.
Follow our city-level requests by exploring the map below:
Add your town to our project via the form below, and we’ll submit a request to your local law enforcement.
Image via EndTheBacklog.org
Until recently, police in Columbus, Ohio couldn’t differentiate between rape kits and shopping carts
A public records request with the Columbus Police Department revealed that until a year ago, the department tagged rape kits in evidence as “other,” a designation also used for shopping carts and cell phones.
For the last year, we’ve been requesting data surrounding the national backlog of untested sexual assault evidence. While we still don’t know the actual number- so far more than 225,000 rape kits have been found sitting on evidence collection shelves and in hospitals from coast to coast - we have a greater understanding of the many hurdles victims and law enforcement face. There are many reasons rape kits go untested, and the lack of forensic funding continues to exacerbate the problem.
Trump signs the SAFER Act of 2017, strengthening efforts to eliminate the nationwide rape kit backlog
Amid #metoo stories and Hollywood’s women coalescing around a fight against sexual assault and harassment in the workplace, there’s finally some good news: President Donald Trump has signed the SAFER (Sexual Assault Forensic Evidence Reporting) Act of 2017. In doing so, Trump reauthorized the original SAFER Act of 2013, extending and strengthening efforts to eliminate the nationwide rape kit backlog.
After hearing stories of women having to travel long distances to receive the rape kit exams that are guaranteed to them under the Violence Against Women Act, we began to file the same request with the health departments in all 50 states asking for locations where sexual assault forensic examiners are available on staff or on-call. Like most of the other data surrounding sexual assault policies, what we’ve found so far varies widely, and there are large deserts - huge, mostly rural areas without easy access to a medical examiner
When DNA evidence can be destroyed at will by hospital officials, the lack of a statute of limitations can mean almost nothing. Giving survivors only 30 days to decide whether to press charges is an unfairly small window of time to process the traumatic event.
Recently released documents show that the backlog of untested rape kits in Alaska’s capitol city, Juneau, is staggering. Out of the 283 sexual assault evidence kits collected since 2000, 206 still remain untested, while the status of three remains “unknown” - disturbing news for a state with a rate of sexual violence nearly three times the national average.
Our request with Monroe, New York showed that, despite a new state law requiring all rape kits be tested within ten days, the police department currently has three kits that haven’t been sent to a lab for processing.
The care rape victims receive is entirely dependent on where the crime occurred. Good sexual assault response policies are comprised of a number of initiatives, including (but not limited to) specific officer training, a victim-centered approach, access to victim advocates, guidelines for submitting kits to labs, and victim notification. Based on what we’ve seen in our reporting so far, we’ve rounded up a list of the five best - and the five worst - sexual assault response policies across the country.
Our request for data and policies regarding the collection, maintenance, and testing of backlogged rape kits in Dallas shows that, as of May 2017, more than 1,000 kits still have not been submitted to crime labs. Of those submitted, only 50% have been tested, and just 35% of those tested have been uploaded into CODIS.
The SAFER Working Group combined authorities from local police departments, the FBI, state crime laboratories, government institutions, colleges, medical examiners, and nurses, which met for more than two years before penning the first federal guidelines for sexual assault evidence collection. This document is undeniably a step in the right direction, but will local law enforcement agencies and state and private laboratories implement these recommendations?
In some cities, law enforcement officers follow clear guidelines on how to conduct victim interviews and handle evidence. But in Lowell, Massachusetts, the police department maintains no specific procedures regarding sexual assault response and no data on how many rape kits and haven’t been tested.
Great sexual assault evidence collection policies exist, but continue to be the exception to the rule
The best sexual assault policies adopted by this country’s law enforcement agencies illustrate a careful balancing act - Gardner, Massachusetts, with its victim-focused approach, a team of officers trained in handling sexual assault, and clear evidence collection policies, stands out. But until every police department in the country has these, the national backlog will continue to exist.
Anonymous rape kits allow victims who choose to not press charges to receive critical medical care. But opting out of pressing charges shouldn’t preclude testing, and shouldn’t relegate the kit to sit forgotten on an evidence room shelf.
Fairbanks, the third “Most Dangerous U.S. City for Women,” wants to charge $15,000 for rape kit data
When we were hit with an estimated $5,000 fee for rape kit data and collection policies from Biloxi, Mississippi, we were stunned. Fees this large carry a sense of deterrence, and, with Biloxi’s rate of sexual assault being significantly above the national average, we couldn’t help but wonder if they were trying to hide something. As it turns out, Biloxi’s fee was neither an outlier nor the most expensive we’d see - Fairbanks, Alaska, which sits at number three on Forbes Magazine’s list of “Most Dangerous U.S. Cities for Women,” said their data and policies will cost us $15,000.
In our efforts to uncover the rape kit backlog and report on the extent of untested sexual assault evidence, we often face the hurdle of public records fees. However, the Biloxi, Mississippi police department far surpassed any amount we’ve previously seen, asking for so much money as to render these documents essentially impossible to obtain.
Hawaii has 1,951 untested rape kits, some dating back to the early ’90s. However, a new program created by a working group of police departments, sexual assault treatment programs, and prosecuting attorneys seeks to fix that by examining other evidence collection policies across the country.
Just last year San Jose rewrote their penal code to test every backlogged rape kit in their system. However, due to a number of legal circumstances where police departments aren’t required to have kits tested, over half of San Jose’s untested kits don’t count as part of the “official” backlog
Thousands upon thousands of sexual assault evidence collection kits have gone untested and the crimes perpetrators unpunished. MuckRock is starting a crowdsourced effort to understand the extent of the problem in cities and towns across the country.
There are an estimated 175 thousand sexual assault evidence collection kits that sit untested in evidence rooms and crime labs across the country. But after asking each state and Washington, D.C. for policies regarding the “collection, maintenance, transfer, and disposal” of these kits, what few responses we did receive were disturbingly inconsistent.
Vanessa Nason sent this request to the United States Attorney's Office for the District of Puerto Rico of the United States of America
Beryl Lipton sent this request to the Tennessee Department of Safety and Homeland Security of Tennessee
Ginette Walls sent this request to the Tennessee Department of Safety and Homeland Security of Tennessee