More than 3,400 rape kits collected from victims were never tested and sit in law enforcement storage around Minnesota, with some kits dating to the early 1990s.

The tally represents the first hard numbers for Minnesota in a continuing national scandal over the neglect of evidence that could put rapists behind bars.

The state Department of Public Safety released the tally Wednesday following a Star Tribune data request, but couldn’t provide detailed information because it’s still analyzing the reports from local law enforcement agencies.

At the direction of the Legislature this past spring, the Department of Public Safety’s Bureau of Criminal Apprehension (BCA) has been taking inventory of sexual assault evidence kits that were used but never analyzed for DNA, and asking why they weren’t processed.

It’s the first time the Legislature has required agencies to report untested rape kits, although efforts have been made in the past to learn about the numbers, said Public Safety spokeswoman Jill Oliveira.

Minnesota’s new inventory law requires the BCA to submit a report to the state attorney general and legislative leaders by Dec. 1.

Oliveira said that 406 law enforcement agencies reported their inventories, for a total of 3,449 untested kits. That represents most of Minnesota’s law enforcement agencies, she said.

“Initial assessment of the data shows that the vast majority of the reported kits exist within local law enforcement agencies, not in crime labs,” Oliveira said.

It’s up to local law enforcement to decide how long to store the kits, she said. The Minneapolis Police Department holds them “forever” in freezers, a spokesman said.

The agencies offered numerous explanations why rape kit exams were done but never analyzed for DNA, Oliveira said. The reasons include: the kit adds no value to a case, the case was closed, a suspect confessed, a criminal complaint was never filed, prosecutors declined the case, investigation revealed the sex was consensual and the victim either refused to participate or filed a false report.

“We’re in the process of analyzing the data, but our role in this process does not include deciding whether the local agencies’ decisions were appropriate,” Oliveira said.

One of the bill’s sponsors, Rep. Dan Schoen, DFL-St. Paul Park and a police officer, said the number of untested kits is higher than he expected but it doesn’t necessarily mean something is wrong. He said the agencies gave valid reasons for leaving those kits untested, but he wants to see the details.

“Is there a single kit in Minnesota that is sitting on a shelf for an undue amount of time that should have been tested [but] hasn’t? That’s what we need to find out,” Schoen said.

About 2,000 rapes are reported each year in Minnesota.

Victims typically undergo exams at hospitals or clinics. Medical staff then package up the kit, which includes forms, sheets of paper for victims to undress on, swabs, tubes for blood and urine samples, combs and glass slides.

In Minnesota, police can send completed kits to one of four crime labs in the state that do DNA testing, two of which are run by the BCA. The DNA is entered into a national database.

Laura Taken-Holtze, spokeswoman for the Minnesota Coalition Against Sexual Assault, called the 3,449 total “a little bit surprising.” She hadn’t expected Minnesota to have a big problem, and wondered whether officials counted rape kits that weren’t cleared by victims for DNA testing. The new law directs officials to count only those kits that victims consented to have tested.

Nonetheless, she said the new inventory could be “enlightening” and provide a lot of useful data.

“Our main concern has been access to having a rape kit done in the first place,” Taken-Holtze said.

In rural areas, people can be “told to go two hours away,” she said.

Survivors have reported being billed for a rape kit exam, Taken-Holtze said, explaining that the county where the assault occurred is supposed to pay for the exam, which can cost up to $1,500.

This spring, the Obama administration announced a $41 million Sexual Assault Kit Initiative to help communities address the rape kit problem.

USA Today reported in July that 70,000 sexual assault kits were booked into evidence but never tested at hundreds of law enforcement agencies nationwide. It found that the U.S. Department of Justice wasn’t complying with a 2013 law to accelerate testing and set standards.

Resources for survivors of sexual assault can be found at www.rapehelpmn.org.

 

Jennifer.Bjorhus@startribune.com 612-673-4683 MaryJo.Webster@startribune.com 612-673-1789