With each passing day, we are confronted with an increasing number of headlines that reveal the true scope and scale of sexual misconduct in our midst. As more brave survivors come forward, it is apparent that sexual assaults are committed repetitively, blatantly and too often with impunity.
For years, public safety professionals and advocates have known that the majority of sexual assaults are never reported and, therefore, fail to be represented in the national crime statistics database. Using Department of Justice surveys and statistics, the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAIIN) estimates that only 344 out of 1,000 sexual assaults are actually reported to law enforcement. This translates into approximately 2 out of 3 sexual assaults never being reported to authorities.
There are many reasons for this, including a culture of silence that developed because survivors of sexual assault who previously raised their voices were minimized, questioned and not believed. We can only hope that the strength being demonstrated by the women and men who recently have publicly described their attacks will encourage other survivors to come forward.
To assist them, we must do everything possible to deliver justice by ensuring that their assaulters are held accountable and prosecuted for their crimes. One of the first and most consequential steps we can take is to ensure that all DNA rape kits that are collected following a sexual assault are tested immediately.
There are tens of thousands of untested rape kits sitting in the evidence rooms of the country’s approximate 18,000 police departments. No one knows the exact number of untested kits, because few jurisdictions publicly report their backlogs. In 2015, the Department of Justice estimated the national number to be as high as 400,000.
Regardless of the precise number, each of these kits represents a survivor of a sexual assault and a missed opportunity to solve a crime. In many criminal cases, prosecutors and law enforcement officers struggle to piece together the many intricate pieces of a case until sufficient evidence is available to file charges. But, in sexual assault cases, police and prosecutors have access to a vast untapped reservoir of compelling evidence. Each time this reservoir fails to be tapped, a chance to support a survivor, serve justice and solve a violent crime is missed.
Police departments should not be blamed for this massive backlog. It developed because technology needed to catch up with evidence collection procedures. Many rape kits were collected before the advent of the DNA databases and advanced DNA testing procedures that now make it possible to identify potential criminals with great accuracy. With the technology now at our disposal and given the crucial evidence contained in rape kits, it is incumbent on us to eliminate the backlog.
We know this will have results because when jurisdictions make a concerted effort to eliminate their backlogs, it makes a clear difference. When Los Angeles eliminated its rape kit backlog of over 6,000 kits, they found 753 hits in the FBI’s national DNA database.
The Los Angeles Police Department also reported that in just one year (2010), the testing of recent and cold case rape kits resulted in 245 arrests. The Joyful Heart Foundation’s End the Backlog Initiative found that when New York City eliminated its rape kit backlog in 2003, its arrest rate for rape increased from 40 percent to 70 percent. More recently, End the Backlog reports that when Detroit completed its testing of approximately 10,000 rape kits in its backlog this year, they found 2,616 DNA matches and identified 811 potential serial rapists.
The ramifications of testing can go far beyond any one specific jurisdiction. In Detroit’s case, the testing had a national impact with their results being linked to crimes in 40 other states.
It is expensive to eliminate a rape kit backlog, and this expense can serve as an excuse for inaction. But, it is not a valid excuse. The City of Los Angeles successfully eliminated its backlog of over 6,000 kits because the project was a priority for the mayor, the city council president, the police chief, the community, and women’s and victims advocates. Collectively, they brought together city funding, federal and foundation grants, and private donations to clear the backlog of over 6,000 untested kits in a little over two years after it was discovered. This achievement becomes more significant when you consider that it happened in the middle of an economic recession and a period of severe public sector belt-tightening.
Success required tremendous political will, a willingness to be transparent about an embarrassingly large backlog, and a willingness to embrace the help and oversight of activists and community groups.
The backlog of untested DNA rape kits sends an unambiguous message to both survivors and perpetrators. To the survivors it discourages the reporting of sexual assaults because crucial and compelling evidence is ignored. Tragically, it also reinforces the culture of silence that has long surrounded this type of crime by telling victims that their crimes do not matter. To perpetrators, it says, you have impunity to commit a violent act. These messages are not acceptable.
It takes a tremendous amount of strength for survivors of sexual assault to come forward and break the culture of silence. We must honor this strength by listening to them, believing them and doing everything we can to ensure they receive the justice due to them. That starts with testing the evidence we already have.
Eileen M. Decker is the former United States attorney for the Central District of California, and the former deputy mayor for Homeland Security & Public Safety for the City of Los Angeles (for both Mayor’s Villaraigosa and Garcetti). As deputy mayor she was responsible for the city’s response to and preparation for emergencies, including developing the City's earthquake plan. As United States attorney, she led the federal response to the San Bernardino terrorist attack.