Thanks to a grant from a surprising source, the Fresno Police Department has finally been able to process their backlog of 765 sexual assault evidence collection kits (also known as "rape kits").
The kits had sat untested, some for well over a decade, in the department freezer until just a few months ago. Some say the backlog is due to a lack of resources, but it is also a testament to how low a priority sexual assault cases truly are.
The funding for these rape kits to be processed came from the New York County District Attorney's Office in what is referred to as a DANY Grant. In 2016, $38 million was distributed across 32 police jurisdictions so that law enforcement could send rape kits for testing and begin to investigate cases of sexual violence that had remained unaddressed for years.
“Rape kits are an essential tool in modern crime fighting — not only for the victim, but, for the entire community," said then Vice President Joe Biden in the announcement of the grant. "Studies show we solve up to 50 percent of previously unsolved rapes when these kits are tested. When we solve these cases, we get rapists off the streets. For most survivors, seeing their rapists brought to justice, and knowing that they will not return, brings peace of mind and a sense of closure. The grants we’re announcing today to reduce the national rape kit backlog will bring that sense of closure and safety to victims while improving community safety.”
According to the Fresno Bee, by April 12, 2017, 552 kits had been processed by the California Department of Justice. Local law enforcement expects that the remaining kits will be sent for testing by the end of May.
Sgt. Daniel Macias, a supervisor in the Fresno Police Department's sexual assault unit, explained that testing all the kits is crucial in order to update federal databases and catch serial rapists. Many rapists are repeat offenders; the risk of them continuing to rape is high unless they are caught. Ensuring rape kits are not only tested, but tested promptly, decreases the chances of others becoming victims.
A recently passed law abolishing California's 10-year statute of limitations on sexual assault cases ensures that any kits collected after Jan. 1, 2017, can be used as evidence indefinitely. However, Macias said that the oldest rape kit in the freezer is from 2000. Unfortunately, evidence collected in kits between 2000 and the end of 2006 will not be viable in court, so many of these survivors will not see their rapists brought to justice.
“My concern is the message it sends to survivors and victims,” Priscilla Meza, executive director of Fresno organization Rape Counseling Services, told the Fresno Bee. “That if they come forward, nothing’s going to be done.”
This brings us to the unsolved question that we must ask not only Fresno, but the rest of the nation: Why did it take so long for these kits to be processed?
How 765 cases of sexual assault were left to wither in the heart of California, and many thousands more across the United States, remains a mystery. Additionally, there are no clear policies in place to make sure it doesn't happen again.
While the Department of Justice is developing a program to more efficiently analyze and utilize the data from rape kits, its positive impact remains to be seen. Macias said he believes Fresno's backlog stems from a severe lack of resources, but advocates of sexual assault prevention see something much deeper at work.
“Having all these untested kits is indicative of a larger systemic problem,” explains Ilse Knecht, head of the Accountability Project, an initiative launched to investigate the true extent of the U.S. rape kit backlog. “We don’t take rape seriously in this country.”
The DANY Grant, while a boon to justice, will not last forever, and the Fresno Police Department must be prepared to move forward with cases of sexual assault without it. At the moment, police are shipping kits to the Department of Justice for testing within a week of their collection, however, this new expediency could falter when the funding comes to an end in 2018.
Currently, there is no plan in place to prevent another backlog of rape kits.
Local law enforcement and the Department of Justice need to successfully implement policies that guarantee timely testing of kits to be used as evidence in sexual assault cases. If not, they risk paving the way for rapists to rape again.
Banner and thumbnail credit: Flickr user Dafne Cholet