MSU researcher helps Detroit tackle problem of untested rape kits
EAST LANSING, Mich. — A noted researcher from Michigan State University is helping Detroit authorities to determine why more than 10,000 sexual assault kits spanning two decades went untested and to develop practices to prevent the problem in the future.
Rebecca Campbell, a psychology professor and veteran sexual assault researcher, is the independent evaluator for the three-year project funded by the U.S. Department of Justice. Campbell has been given unprecedented access by the Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office, Detroit Police Department and Michigan State Police to interview staff at all levels and review policies and procedures related to the 10,559 untested sexual assault kits in Detroit.
“If everything goes the way it is supposed to, Detroit will be positioned to be a national leader in being able to help other communities deal with this,” said Campbell, who started her work in April. “It means that the research we do will assist police and prosecutors in bringing criminals to justice."
The untested sexual assault kits, also known as rape kits, were discovered in a Detroit police property storage facility in August 2009. The kits date back to the 1980s.
The Justice Department awarded Wayne County a $200,000 grant to address the problem in collaboration with MSU’s Campbell. Her research into victims’ experiences with sexual assault over the past 22 years has received numerous awards from organizations such as the American Psychological Association and the International Association of Forensic Nurses.
Steven Pierce, associate director of MSU’s Center for Statistical Training and Consulting, also played a role in the project by reviewing the sexual assault kits and offering a statistical analysis of the evidence. From a random study of 400 kits, Pierce estimated that between 577 to 1,811 offenders potentially could be identified if the kits were to be processed. (For more, see Michigan Department of Human Services news release.)
Campbell, assisted by MSU doctoral student Giannina Fehler-Cabral, is observing and documenting every decision Detroit authorities make in their attempt to correct the problem. She will then evaluate the effectiveness of the strategies that are implemented.
Campbell is sharing her findings with Detroit authorities throughout the project. Ultimately, she will deliver an independent report to the Department of Justice that recommends specific procedures to prevent future backlogs of rape kits.
Untested sexual assault evidence is a problem across the nation, with major cities such as Dallas and Los Angeles also experiencing a backlog of untested sexual assault kits, according to a May report from the National Institute of Justice.
The report discusses the many implications of a rape-kit backlog, such as where the resources to alleviate the problem will come from “as already strapped police departments face demands for follow-up investigations.”
Campbell said one of the issues she will examine is victim notification and its potential effects. For example, should older sexual assault cases be given priority if the statute of limitations is about to expire, even though that may be harmful to the victim?
“For a lot of these women, the assault happened 10, 15 years ago, and they’ve moved on with their lives,” Campbell said. “And to have somebody literally show up at their door and tell them they’re digging back into the case? How do you reopen somebody’s life like this?”
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