The Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department (CMPD) expects to nearly eliminate its backlog of untested rape kits by the summer of 2017 with assistance from grant funds dedicated to addressing the national backlog of sexual assault evidence kits.
Like most police agencies across the country, the department found itself with a large backlog of untested kits, as best practices and the department’s policies for testing sexual assault evidence evolved.
Previously, CMPD prioritized the processing of sexual assault evidence kits based on the need in each particular investigation, said Lt. Melanie Peacock, who heads the Sexual Assault Unit. The department didn’t have the resources to test every kit collected, she said, so it did not test kits when the sexual contact was not in question or either the victim or prosecutor declined to move forward with the case.
In the fall of 2015, CMPD changed its protocol on sexual assault evidence testing. Moving forward, the department intends to test every rape kit associated with a criminal case.
“Our detectives — like most across the U.S. — used to make decisions about testing sexual assault kits based on whether or not the test could result in information they needed for their investigation,” Peacock said.
“We now take a more global approach. We have all this legally-obtained DNA evidence that might hold answers. If we test it and a profile is found, we can potentially re-open the case it’s associated with and possibly even others.”
In March of 2014, CMPD received a request for information from the Joyful Heart Foundation, an organization that advocates for sexual assault survivors. The organization was working to determine the size of the national backlog of untested rape kits.
After receiving the request, Crime Lab Director Matthew Mathis said CMPD realized it did not have an adequate method for tracking the number of kits turned in as evidence versus the number tested or waiting to be tested. After months of research, Mathis said, CMPD was able to determine that approximately 1,000 rape kits from the past 10 years had been collected but not tested.
CMPD is one of 16 jurisdictions that provided actual numbers to the foundation. According to its website, about 26 others are still in the process of collecting the requested information. Until recently, few state governments and no federal agencies required police departments to count or track the kits in their possession.
Grants Awarded to Fund Backlog Work
After auditing its backlog, CMPD in 2015 received a $557,974 grant from the New York District Attorney Sexual Assault Kit Backlog Elimination Program to test 885 of its untested rape kits.
In October 2016, CMPD received $1,125,606 in grant funds from the National Sexual Assault Kit Initiative Program. In addition to covering the cost of testing another 300 kits and a software upgrade to improve the tracking of kits, the latest grant pays for the following positions for three years: a DNA analyst, a sexual assault victim advocate, a site coordinator and two part-time detectives.
· The DNA analyst will increase CMPD’s capacity to test sexual assault evidence kits in its lab and will review the out-sourced work as it is returned.
· Part -time detectives will investigate the cases associated with rape kits that produce CODIS hits.
· The sexual assault victim advocate will accompany detectives when they contact survivors as they are told their kit has been tested and matched in CODIS. This person will help survivors understand what it means and what their options are as far as moving forward with an investigation. The advocate will connect survivors of sexual assault with counselors and other resources.
· The site coordinator will track kits coming in and out of the lab to ensure CMPD has an accurate gauge on its workload and the turnaround time for testing, and coordinate the work of the detectives and analyst.
The organization funding the first grant negotiated reduced testing prices with two of the country’s largest private DNA testing laboratories. Because the majority of the grantees contracted with those two labs, CMPD must send the kits to the lab in batches. As of January, 600 had been sent for testing. The final 285 are scheduled for April.
City Council this week approved a contract with a second private DNA testing lab, which will assist with testing kits funded by the second grant.
So far, according to Mathis, CMPD has received results from 188 of the kits submitted. Of those, 54 yielded a DNA profile that can be entered into CODIS, a National DNA database containing more than 15 million DNA profiles from casework samples, convicted offenders and arrestees. Crime laboratories from across the nation add profiles into CODIS, which then compares them to the existing profiles to determine if there is a match, also called a hit. Thirteen of those 54 entered into CODIS resulted in a hit. So far, none have led to an arrest.
Peacock explained that most of the matches are to people who were already known to investigators and already associated with the case. But it still is important to test all of these kits, Peacock said. Survivors may have changed their mind about moving forward with a case and testing the kits results in more profiles in the national database.
CMPD takes a survivor-focused approach to cases, which means the person who was assaulted is in control of the investigation. Even after a CODIS hit, the survivor decides if they want detectives to move forward with the case.
“We are not going to force a survivor to go through an investigation. We want justice for the survivor, but ultimately it is up to that individual,” Peacock said. “There also is an added benefit of potentially being able to link that profile to other cases. We want to upload as many profiles as possible into the national database to potentially make matches in other unsolved cases. It’s really important in terms of identifying serial rapists.”
Mathis said CMPD’s decision to test all kits submitted to the department has doubled the number being sent to the Biology Section of the Crime Lab. The current backlog will be eliminated with the assistance of the federal grants, but the police department will likely need to make the new grant positions permanent to prevent another future backlog. Prior to the decision to test all kits, CMPD’s lab received an average of 11 requests from detectives each month to test kits. The police department receives about 23 kits each month.
Additionally, Peacock says CMPD has other kits that weren’t asked for in the Joyful Heart research and have not been tested for DNA. Before DNA testing was developed, rape kits were sent to the lab and screened for bodily fluids, which was the extent of the technology at the time. CMPD preserved those kits and is in the process of inventorying them. Peacock and Mathis estimate CMPD has several hundred kits that pre-date DNA testing.
Over time, Peacock said, CMPD will get those kits tested too, as they may contain DNA profiles that can be put in CODIS and matched to an offender. The Cold Case Squad is already chipping away at those cases, she said.
Some Kits Disposed of Before They Could Be Tested
CMPD disposed of about 1,000 untested rape kits collected between 2004 and 2014. The kits were from cases that were thoroughly investigated, Peacock said. Most were closed because the victim or district attorney declined to prosecute, the test wasn’t required for prosecution, or detectives determined that a crime had not occurred. A smaller number (less than 100) were still classified in CMPD’s records system as open, but Peacock said, those cases were also closed.
Disposing of the untested kits did not violate any laws and was accepted protocol among law enforcement and labs across the country at the time. But Peacock, and CMPD leadership, say technology is constantly changing and evolving, and what seems impossible or unnecessary today could be critically important tomorrow.