At a Salt Lake City Council work session council members kicked off a discussion on how the city can address a backlog of unprocessed rape kits. While the state crime lab traditionally processes the Code-R kits to obtain DNA evidence of potential sexual assaults, one idea proposed at the meeting was that the city fund it's own lab to test kits.
The meeting, which was an informal process and without a public hearing, was only the beginning steps the council would undertake if it wants to tackle the issue of untested rape kits.
The rape kit issue came to a head as City Weekly
first reported on in January
about a survey conducted by a veteran Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner showing that 94 percent of reported adult sexual assaults in Salt Lake County were not prosecuted.
Subsequently the State Crime Lab informed the Legislature
that it would require $750,000 to process an estimated backlog of 1,000 to 2,000 untested kits, and $600,000 ongoing to address newly received kits.
The Salt Lake City Police Department has already begun reviewing kits in their evidence rooms that have not been tested to make sure the decision was appropriate. Salt Lake City Police Chief Chris Burbank has echoed the sentiments of other law enforcement officials in saying that kits aren't processed for lack of care, but often times because the victim in a case was unwilling to press charges or evidence may have found that sex was consensual.
Regardless, the Salt Lake City Police Department has reported a backlog of over 600 untested kits.
The council in the work session took a number of informal straw polls to send a strong message about their plans to have the capital city lead out on testing rape kits, and the first of six unanimous votes was that the city seek to process all of it's backlogged kits. They also voted to process all new kits ongoing.
They also sought to explore ways to effectively do this by funding a position at the state crime lab, founding a public/private partnership with a commercial lab or by building a lab just for Salt Lake City's cases—an option also supported by the police department.
Councilman Kyle Lamalfa who proposed the new initiatives explained that the Salt Lake City Police Department had informed him that Salt Lake City averages roughly 100 reports of forcible rapes—or felony sexual assaults—per year and the cost to process the kits is roughly $1,000 each. Meaning that $100,000 annually could in theory address the city's ongoing costs of processing rape kits for DNA evidence.
Councilwoman Lisa Adams saw that as a very worthwhile expenditure saying “$100,000 to give these women closure sounds like a bargain to me.”
Another idea was advanced to study partnering with neighboring municipalities to try and shoulder the costs of kit processing by Councilman Stan Penfold.
Penfold was critical of moving too fast into an undertaking that is meant to be left up to the state to oversee. He was supportive of tackling the issue but also wanted to make sure the council had all the information it needed first. He also challenged the idea of the city paying to have kits sent to outside labs when it might mean that city prosecutors would be limited in how they could use the information and access databases of collected DNA from kits.
“Whatever we fund should allow prosecutors to move forward without delay,” Penfold said.
The council also advanced the idea of bringing in an outside consultant to meet with the police department and review their policies and practices for interviewing victims, and prioritizing kits for processing.
Salt Lake City has actually been selected
as one of four cities that will have their rape-kit policies and procedures vetted as part of a multi-year study done by the Police Executive Research Forum and the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office on Violence Against Women.
Even still Councilman Luke Garrott saw value in having an independent consultation done and the council even suggested that if a consultation saw the need that they would consider conducting a comprehensive audit or review of the police department's screening of victims and intake of kits.
Lastly the group sought to coordinate with the city prosecutor's office over the ability to charge suspects in forcible rape cases if the Salt Lake District Attorney's office wouldn't.
“If the D.A. can't prosecute for rape at the felony level I'm hoping our city prosecutor can at least prosecute something at the misdemeanor level,” Lamalfa said.
While the meeting was informal and a representative of the Salt Lake City Police Department did not comment for the council, the issue is expected to be addressed again within the next few months at a formal meeting.