In a 2015 report to the state BCA, the Minneapolis Police Department said it had 194 untested rape kits in sexual assault cases. Turns out the real number of unprocessed kits is 1,700 — a shameful discrepancy that may have denied justice to hundreds of rape victims and allowed serial assailants to remain free and attack others.
It’s not that the kits were lost or stolen. They’ve been stored at two locations in the city since they were sent to MPD during the past 20 years, according to police officials. When MPD Chief Medaria Arradondo recently shared the error with the public, he had no explanation for it, calling it an unacceptable “failure in terms of auditing and processing.” Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey termed it an “unjustified mistake.” Both vowed that MPD would work through the backlog and make sure that kind of poor accounting never happens again.
It appears that the inaccurate accounting occurred because of judgment calls made by MPD staff. Some of the rape kits are classified as restricted; that means no police report exists for those because victims didn’t file one. Their evidence was sent to police for storage without names — just an ID number, dates and what hospital, clinic or other medical facility collected the evidence.
When asked to report the numbers of kits, MPD staff made decisions about which ones were worthy of being tested. They used their discretion — the same discretion that has for too long prevented sex assault cases from being properly investigated.
It’s the attitude of some police and prosecutors that was reported in the Star Tribune news series “Denied Justice: When rape is reported and nothing happens.” Published about a year ago, the stories documented failings in the investigation and prosecution of sexual assault throughout Minnesota. The reporting prompted police departments and county prosecutors to make changes in the way they handle cases.
And last year, the Legislature passed a law that now gives police 10 days to retrieve unrestricted exam kits from health care facilities and 60 days to submit them for testing. Police are also required, when asked, to inform victims about the status of their kits and any findings. Minnesota cops aren’t required to test every kit, although they must explain why they don’t in writing.
To be sure, Minneapolis and Minnesota are not alone in years of mishandling rape cases, as an Atlantic story reported this summer. The federal government estimates that at least 200,000 kits sit untested in police evidence rooms. Officials acknowledge, though, that there are likely thousands more because of situations similar to that in Minneapolis. Law enforcement agencies around the nation have either failed to report or underreported this type of evidence.
To correct the problem, MPD recently has joined other state law enforcement agencies to identify and process untested kits. The department hired a victims’ advocate to work with investigators and help survivors navigate the system to report assaults. Since the huge error was uncovered, MPD officials say 60 kits have been sent to the BCA for testing. The remaining kits should be properly categorized as quickly as possible, and those results must be shared with the public.
Experiences of other jurisdictions demonstrate why this matters. Between 2011 and 2013, Cleveland and Cuyahoga County authorities in Ohio started processing their backlog of more than 7,000 untested kits. As a result, prosecutors have indicted nearly 750 rapists in cold cases and convicted more than 400 of them. In Detroit, a stepped-up effort to test the kits helped convict 175 men.
And in Fort Worth, Texas, police sent nearly 1,000 kits to a DNA science project at the University of North Texas. That testing yielded 102 suspects and led to 47 arrests and 36 felony convictions.
Now MPD should follow suit. Increased convictions can bring long-denied justice to victims and protect others from sexual predators. And adding perpetrator information to national databases will help law enforcement put repeat offenders behind bars where they belong.