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Editorial: Destruction of rape kits unjust to victims

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Editorial: Destruction of rape kits unjust to victims

Hundreds of untested rape kits are stored at the Seattle Police Department’s evidence warehouse.

Hundreds of untested rape kits are stored at the Seattle Police Department’s evidence warehouse.

Steve Ringman/The Seattle Times/TNS

Hundreds of untested rape kits are stored at the Seattle Police Department’s evidence warehouse.

Steve Ringman/The Seattle Times/TNS

Steve Ringman/The Seattle Times/TNS

Hundreds of untested rape kits are stored at the Seattle Police Department’s evidence warehouse.

By The Pitt News Editorial Board

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At a time when the #MeToo movement is helping to shed light on the prevalence of sexual violence and harassment, it’s also helping to direct the focus of some investigations on the systems that are meant to prevent and punish these crimes.

A CNN investigation revealed that police agencies across the country have been throwing away rape kits, oftentimes before the statute of limitations is up. This is a terrifying reality for victims, who can no longer trust that the evidence they give will even be used. Throwing these kits away also poses a threat to public safety that could be remedied with better resources capable of handling the large quantity of kits we see.

This isn’t the first time an investigation has revealed that police aren’t handling rape kits the way they should be. Investigations by various news outlets in 2015 uncovered the fact that many agencies weren’t sending thousands of DNA kits to be tested in crime laboratories as they should have been doing. NBC Charlotte carried out a further investigation that revealed the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department had more than 1,000 untested rape kits dating back 10 years just sitting on shelves.

The CNN investigation goes even further to show that evidence from 400 cases was thrown away before the statute of limitations was up, which is just as troubling — if not more so —  as the backlog of untested kits. To leave kits untested is one thing, but to throw them away so the evidence can never be used is another kind of cruelty.

Not everyone who experiences sexual assault goes to get a forensic exam after the assault. But many do undergo the long, invasive process of being investigated as a crime scene. A nurse spends three to five hours taking DNA samples from every area of the victim’s body. The nurse also asks questions the victim may not want to think about or may not know the answer to, questions that force the victim to relive the trauma they suffered just hours ago.

If people have been violently assaulted and then subjected to the extreme emotional stress of having to relive that experience, it is completely disrespectful to then throw away evidence related to the crime done to them.

“What CNN discovered is a systematic problem,” said retired Sergeant Joanne Archambault of the San Diego Police Department’s sex crimes unit. “You’re not serious about solving rape cases if you destroy rape kits before the statute of limitations [expires].”

If law enforcement were serious about using evidence to help solve cases of sexual violence, they would direct more time and resources toward processing the kits, and they certainly wouldn’t throw them away. It’s a matter of public safety — when perpetrators of assault are caught and appropriately punished with jail time, they are no longer a danger to other people.

When Detroit prosecutor Kym Worthy’s agency started to go through its backlog of 10,000 kits, it was able to identify 833 people who were linked to multiple sex crimes. Testing old kits can not only solve crimes, but can prevent them too.

Budgets are tight in police agencies around the country, but they need to start taking cases of sexual violence more seriously. They can start by doing what Worthy’s office did and begin processing the enormous backlog of kits. But it also comes down to the values of those who lead these agencies — they need to make justice for victims of sexual violence a higher priority than it is now.

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Editorial: Destruction of rape kits unjust to victims