New Memphis Rape-Kit Facility a Model for Other Cities

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December 9, 2015; LocalMemphis.com

Memphis, Tennessee has established a $1 million state-of-the-art facility for storing rape kits, physical evidence such as blood and DNA samples resulting from sexual assault. The new Memphis center will ease its backlog while sending a reassuring message to victims of sexual assault.

While the rape kit backlog is a national scandal, placing women and girls at risk all over the country, the responses or lack thereof are largely local. Memphis has accumulated a backlog of more than 12,000 rape kits over the past 40 years. Officials have been working diligently the past few years to test each kit. About 8,000 have been examined or are in the process of being examined, and a little more than a third (4,200) require additional analysis.

This effort has included the construction of a modern storage facility for all future rape kits collected in the city. The new temperature-controlled center stores forensic evidence with some of the most advanced technology. The facility will help reassure law enforcement officials and victims that the evidence in a case is secure while also centralizing storage, making it easy for officials to keep track of each kit.

“This facility is about greater accountability,” said Memphis Director of Police Toney Armstrong.

With the city’s effort to set aside funding to construct a high-tech facility for preserving rape-kit evidence, officials are making a powerful statement to victims about the importance of prosecuting their cases.

“Our goal here is to make sure survivors have the resources that they need, that every kit in our possession now undergoes forensic analysis, and that we get the justice outcomes we are all seeking,” said Doug McGowan of the Memphis Sexual Assault Task Force.

Considering where Memphis started, this remarkable development is a model for other cities, which face a lack of funds to support the technology and personnel needed to test rape kits, and to test them in a reasonable amount of time. As NPQ has previously reported, cities such as Houston, Detroit, and New York have not been as proactive as Memphis.

The same can be said of many states. For example, victims and advocacy groups have criticized New Mexico for its delay in funding efforts to test its known backlog of 5,000 rape kits. But as many as 35 agencies in New Mexico, mostly in rural areas, have yet to report their total number of untested kits. Officials estimate it will cost $8 million over five years to eliminate the state’s backlog.

“It’s a horrendous reality that is happening across the country and it is not specific to New Mexico,” said Julianna Koob, an advocate for the New Mexico Coalition of Sexual Assault Programs. “And it simply comes down to a lack of resources.”

As NPQ previously noted, a lack of funding is a major factor for the nationwide backlog. The issue is compounded by society’s attitude toward rape. It’s difficult to imagine a lab having insufficient funds to process evidence for a murder or robbery without that problem being quickly remedied to bring the perpetrators to justice.

As other states and cities continue to grapple with backlogs, they should learn from past mistakes and similar responses that make testing kits a priority. — Shafaq Hasan