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SALT LAKE CITY — Beginning June 1, the public will be able to see the progress of rape kit processing in Salt Lake City as part of an effort to improve transparency and make systemic improvements.
Representatives from the Salt Lake Police Department, state crime lab and Salt Lake County District Attorney's Office presented the plan and their commitment to improve the process at a news conference Wednesday.
Efforts to address the backlog of 625 unprocessed rape kits in the Salt Lake City area have been in the works for several months. The announcement of the plan wasn't simply a response to the heated Salt Lake City Council meeting on Tuesday, said Salt Lake Police Chief Chris Burbank.
However, Burbank did take the opportunity to insist that Councilman Kyle LaMalfa "misrepresented" professionals' lack of dedication and he refuted the idea that people aren't doing their jobs.
"The commitment here is not to respond to and prove anyone wrong (but) … to evaluate the process by which we provide services to the victims in Salt Lake City of rape and to make sure that everywhere along the process that we are doing the right thing," Burbank said. "And we hope that it identifies areas that we can improve and do a better job."
Advocacy groups for sexual trauma victims met with the council and the police department Tuesday to discuss a backlog of hundreds of cases of unprocessed evidence in sexual crimes that have accumulated since 2004.
Known as rape kits, or Code R kits, each case contains evidence collected in the investigation of a sexual assault. Some kits go on to be processed for DNA and evidentiary purposes at the state crime lab.
Generic information about each rape kit will now be available on the police department's website. No names or specific information will be used, and each case will receive a new case number, starting with the oldest kit in the department's evidence room, Burbank said.
Information will be posted about whether the kit is sent to the lab, what the lab results are (what databases have been searched), whether it goes to the district attorney's office and then what the conclusion is.
The chief said the "open and accessible process" will "demonstrate what we go through in order to actually solve some of these cases and to ensure that a victim does receive justice."
Salt Lake police, the district attorney's office and the Utah Department of Public Safety are collaborating, and each agency is dedicating a "huge amount of resources," Burbank said.
"Their commitment to addressing the backlog of kits not yet processed is positive, and one we hope will be mirrored in every city and every county across Utah," said House Democratic Leader Jennifer Seelig, D-Salt Lake, who sponsored a bill earlier this year to strengthen rape victims' rights.
The commitment here is not to respond to and prove anyone wrong (but) … to evaluate the process by which we provide services to the victims in Salt Lake City of rape and to make sure that everywhere along the process that we are doing the right thing.
–Chief Chris Burbank, SLCPD
Gov. Gary Herbert signed HB157, which requires investigators to inform victims whether their rape kits are processed.
Burbank said it isn't a blame game, but the transparency will open the process up to public scrutiny and reveal weaknesses in the system. He said the agencies are taking a "tremendous risk" but are willing to be accountable. He called it the right thing to do and committed to make changes as they find room for improvement.
"We want to create a process that is transparent, that also focuses on system improvement, that recognizes this an opportunity for us ... as law enforcement and the community at large to look at areas that we can improve upon," District Attorney Sim Gill said.
Gill also said his office is committed to a victim-centered approach to make sure that the process is responsive, humane and accessible. The Rape Recovery Center in Salt Lake and Utah Coalition Against Sexual Assault are part of the "multi-disciplinary team approach." He read off specific objectives he hopes will "openly and honestly" improve the process.
Backlogs of rape kit processing is a national issue, Gill pointed out. He said Dallas has 12,000 adult sexual assault cases unprocessed, Detroit has 10,500 and Los Angeles has 10,000.
About 625 rapes kits that were collected between 2004 and 2013 have yet to be tested are in Salt Lake police's custody. During the same nine years, 154 kits were sent to the state lab, 163 non-tested kits were destroyed and 59 tested kits were destroyed or adjudicated.
So far this year, Salt Lake police have collected samples for 31 rape kits. Eight of those were sent to the lab and two were tested and returned to the department.
We want to create a process that is transparent, that also focuses on system improvement, that recognizes this an opportunity for us ... as law enforcement and the community at large to look at areas that we can improve upon.
–Sim Gill, SLCO District Attorney
Burbank remains critical of the state lab and said resources in the crime lab aren't adequate to meet the demand.
Utah DPS Commissioner Keith Squires agreed the state lab doesn't have enough resources for the case load. During the state legislative session, his department received permission to use $750,000 of its budget for testing rape kits.
"It will be a significant help, but I’m always dealing with limited resources in the lab, fluctuating case demand coming in from agencies, but we always seem to be trying to catch up and keep up," Squires said, pointing out his department has responsibility to every law enforcement agency in the state.
Burbank and he's looking into a private-public partnership to alleviate some of the work of the state lab. However, that would present its own challenges. Kits would still have to go to the state lab to be entered into the FBI's Combined DNA Index System, as private labs can't submit to the nationwide database.
Squires, Burbank and Gill all agreed that the system needs improvement and are willing to put the effort in to make a difference.
"Any crime that occurs in Salt Lake City or within the county or within the state is one victim too many and we need to make sure that that does not happen," Burbank said.
Contributing: Andrew Adams