Sexual Assault Kit Initiative
One kit submitted to the FBI Lab by the Everett (Washington) Police Department in 2016 linked the DNA gathered from the victim to the host of a 2010 holiday party at which the woman reported being raped. Two weeks after that report was made, the party host was arrested for assaulting another woman in the restroom of a bar. When the FBI Lab tested the first victim’s kit six years later, the man had already been released from prison after serving time for the second assault.
Another kit the FBI tested in 2017 from a 2011 Fayetteville, North Carolina, case linked the DNA to a man who was in prison for a 2016 kidnapping, robbery, and rape. A kit tested by another lab also linked the man to a 1998 assault. The delay in processing the evidence was devastating and costly.
That cost, in dollars and to lives, is something Kentucky has been working to understand as it tests a state backlog of more than 3,000 kits in response to 2016 legislation. Kentucky and other states are finding that individuals who commit sexual assaults often commit more than one sexual assault–and not only do these offenders often assault more victims, they are often linked to other violent and/or property crimes.
The Kentucky study found that the cost to society of not testing the kits is far greater than the expense the state would face in fully funding its crime lab. “We know that rapists are often serial criminals,” researchers wrote in the report. “Someone willing to commit violent, intimate crimes against another person poses the highest risk to other persons and property.”
“Our culture for many, many years mischaracterized rape,” said Gretchen Hunt, executive director for the Office of Victim Advocacy with the Kentucky Attorney General’s Office. She added that the assumption was that if it happened in a familiar setting—if it was someone the person knew—that it was somehow less serious. The reality, born out by the data, is that sexual assault is a violent crime, committed by an individual who is likely to be violent again.
Another powerful tool supporting the effort is the FBI’s Violent Crime Apprehension Program (ViCAP), which can help in cases where there is no DNA or if cases are linked by DNA but there is not yet a name attached. ViCAP allows for agencies to capture descriptions of suspects, vehicle information, incident accounts, and other data that can help connect cases.
Kentucky is one state that has volunteered to enter the information from its sexual assault kits into ViCAP; the BJA program now requires it of grant recipients. Aldridge says using ViCAP is just good policy for Kentucky: “We are a poor state. We don’t have a lot of resources. We are trying to work smarter.”
“One of the most frightening things is that although these data give us a much better picture, it’s just the tip of the iceberg,” said Lovell. “These victims reported and submitted to a sexual assault kit being collected. Two thirds of victims don’t report, and our data suggest that only about half of those who report get a sexual assault kit.”
Experts agree that the primary lesson learned from the backlog is that law enforcement should investigate each incident of reported sexual assault with vigor and care, which requires reform beyond the lab work and data entries.
“It’s not sufficient just to test—departments need to do something with the information and follow up,” said Angela Williamson, the BJA policy adviser. The BJA grants provide as much funding for prosecutions and investigations as they do for testing. The grants also require that recipients institute organizational changes to prevent the backlog from building up again. In addition, agencies nationwide are embracing the need for first responders to be better trained in sexual assault response, how victims respond to trauma, and how to institute a victim-centered approach in every step of an investigation.
“It’s great to see so many jurisdictions saying, ‘We may not have done this the best way before, but we are doing something about it now,’ ” said Lovell. “Such change is happening,” echoed Williamson.