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April 7, 2015

Detroit solves problem of untested rape kits, MSU report finds

A diverse team of scientists, prosecutors, police, victim advocates and others has solved the problem of untested rape kits in Detroit, creating a model that can be used in other communities, finds the lead researcher of the high-profile project.

In a final report released today by the National Institute of Justice, Michigan State University’s Rebecca Campbell said the Detroit project is a “huge catalyst for change.” Campbell was the principal investigator of the initiative, which started in April 2011 and was funded by NIJ, an agency of the U.S. Department of Justice.

“Rape kit testing reform is possible, and we showed how to do it,” said Campbell, MSU professor of psychology. “Our work in Detroit can serve as a model for other communities in how to form multidisciplinary partnerships, develop evidence-based solutions for rape kit testing and help survivors heal from the trauma of rape.”

The project was prompted by the August 2009 discovery of thousands of untested rape kits at a remote Detroit Police Department storage facility. Of the 11,219 rape kits in police custody, researchers determined 8,717 kits had not been submitted for forensic testing, with some of the cases dating back to the 1980s. As a result, many rape cases were left unsolved because suspects were never arrested and/or prosecuted, thus adding to the trauma of victims.

Chronic police understaffing and lack of resources contributed to the problem, but so, too, did police attitudes. “There was clear evidence of police treating victims in dehumanizing ways,” the report says, with law enforcement personnel “regularly expressing negative, stereotyping beliefs about sexual assault victims.” Police would prioritize or weed out rape cases based on assumptions of importance or urgency.

With a goal of finding solutions for testing rape kits and notifying victims, the project brought together representatives from the Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office, the Detroit and Michigan State Police departments, MSU, the nursing field and victim advocacy groups.

Steven Pierce and Dhruv Sharma from MSU’s Center for Statistical Training and Consulting played a key role in the project by reviewing the sexual assault kits and offering a statistical analysis of the evidence.

The project spurred change in many ways, including:

  • The governor and state attorney general’s offices allocated $4 million to test the Detroit rape kits.
  • State funding was increased for Detroit-area advocacy services in new rape cases.
  • Victim-centered training was developed for practitioners who handle rape cases including police, prosecutors, nurses and advocates.
  • The Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office partnered with the Michigan Women’s Foundation and Detroit Crime Commission, both nonprofits, to raise awareness and money to properly investigate and prosecute rape cases.
  • A new tracking system is being developed in Wayne County to ensure all rape cases are accounted for and tested properly. (The report found there is no mechanism to track a rape kit from when it was collected by a medical provider to when it was tested by a forensic scientist.)
  • A state law was passed requiring all rape kits released to law enforcement to be submitted for testing. Additional bills are pending in the state Legislature that would, among other things, create a statewide electronic tracking system for rape kits and provide victims with electronic access to the status of their kits.

“The Detroit project shows how bringing together practitioners from all disciplines – law enforcement, prosecution, forensic sciences, nursing and victim advocacy – can be successful in solving complex social problems,” Campbell said.

Untested rape kits, she added, is a “growing national problem that is happening in cities large and small throughout the United States.”

“What we did with this project was develop a research-based road map: a set of tools, step-by-step guides and protocols to help solve this problem in Detroit and other communities,” Campbell said.

Campbell’s co-investigator was Giannina Fehler-Cabral, who received her doctorate degree from MSU and now works at a research-consulting firm in Los Angeles.

Read more about the issue of untested evidence in sexual assault cases on the NIJ website.

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