Why you should care

Because if the system is broken, we should probably fix it.

Among Hurricane Katrina’s lesser-known tragedies was the ruination of an untold number of rape kits. Rape kits are the small bags or boxes that contain swabs, clothing and other evidence that often hold the DNA profile of the perpetrator (i.e., the key to closing the case). But the evidence had sat neglected, gathering dust in the bowels of the New Orleans Police Department, until finally a flood washed it away.

Rape survivors contend with trauma, awful memories, shame and much more — only 9 percent ever complete a rape kit. And then local police departments squander the evidence, in staggering numbers: more than 1,300 untested kits discovered in Kansas City, Mo.; 11,000 in Detroit, etc., etc. By and large, local law enforcement has proved itself unworthy of managing this evidence, and it’s well past time to think of alternatives: Privatize rape kit testing. Federalize it. Build public-private partnerships. Let TV shows pay for it. Just don’t let them languish like this.

Peg Tallet didn’t. When she heard about Detroit’s backlog, her group, the Michigan Women’s Foundation, went out and raised $10 million for testing. (Testing can cost as much as $1,500.) Since January, the group has tested 9,000 kits, generating database hits in 30 states, and creating what’s being praised as a national model for public-private partnership. Last summer, Michigan passed a new law designed to fast-track testing: Investigators must now hand over kits to a crime lab within 14 days.

Going around the state seems to have worked. The Detroit Police Department told OZY it no longer has a backlog. However, the Kansas City PD confirmed it still has 1,354 kits backlogged. And while the New Orleans PD said its backlog is down to 154, a spokesman told us it has “no way of knowing how many rape kits were lost” during Katrina. “We know there was a lot of damage and evidence destroyed,” he said, “but we do not have a report that says how many sexual assault kits were lost.”

One reason for this neglect is that overworked investigators often consider rape prosecutions “difficult,” devolving into he-said-she-saids, says Noël Busch-Armendariz, director of the University of Texas’ Institute on Domestic Violence & Sexual Assault. The reputation is unwarranted, she says, and based on poor training and victim blaming. Funding issues compound the problem. Legal resources committed to rape cases are still very localized, and when city coffers run low, as in the case of bankrupt Detroit, behemoth and utterly unacceptable backlogs result.

Of course, shifting the responsibility for rape kit testing away from local government could have negative consequences. Do we really want to leave rape prosecutions to the whims of charities? Aren’t we paying city taxes for this kind of service? Tallet said that’s exactly the “pushback” she heard when thumping for donations.

But Michigan’s is not the only potential solution. Because rapists have a tendency to skip town, there’s a good argument for federal intervention — and funding — for rape kit testing. Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. recently nodded in that direction by offering $35 million to clear the district’s backlog; the remainder would be offered to other jurisdictions. Meanwhile, in a pathetic signal of city priorities and dire financial straits, the Kansas City PD just announced it is seeking grants to clear its backlog. There are, yes, more creative solutions out there, like that of Flint, Michigan — another broke city. It just signed an agreement to get its backlog of 250 rape kits tested … funded by a cable TV show called Cold Justice: Sex Crimes.

It’s not an ideal solution, but Busch-Armendariz doesn’t have a problem with it. “At this point, all of our procedures should be thrown up in the air,” she says.

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