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5 years after rape kit backlog controversy, Salt Lake police celebrate 'huge strides'

By Katie McKellar, KSL | Posted - May 6th, 2019 @ 8:39pm



SALT LAKE CITY — Nearly five years have gone by since the state of Utah and Salt Lake City made headlines for a backlog of hundreds of untested rape kits.

Now, after laws were passed at the state and city level to address the backlog, Salt Lake police are celebrating a cultural shift in how sexual assault reports are treated — and that their work has resulted in the identification of more than 100 suspects from the backlog.

While officials on the state level are still working their way through the statewide backlog, Salt Lake City completed processing its 10-year backlog of 768 kits last summer. And now, Salt Lake police are not only processing the kits in a timely manner, but have also made "dramatic changes in the way we respond to and investigate sexual assaults."

That's according to a presentation Salt Lake Police Chief Mike Brown is expected to give to the City Council on Tuesday as part of the police department's required progress updates on the backlog.

"Our entire department's culture has changed," states a report about the presentation submitted to the City Council. "We have made huge strides in creating a victim-centered approach to dealing with victims of all crimes."

Some highlights of the report:

  • Of the 768 backlogged rape kits, 458 resulted in DNA positives.
  • Of the 458 kits, 301 were eligible to be entered into the FBI's combined DNA index system. Of those, 105 returned DNA "hits" and resulted in an identified suspect.
  • About 25 percent, or one of every four of the cases, are now under investigation.

"Bringing justice to these cases, and some peace of mind to the survivors and the community, was our primary goal in this effort," City Council Chairman Charlie Luke said in a statement issued Monday. "We are pleased Salt Lake City police have helped lead the way nationwide in improving the way these difficult cases are handled."

But Salt Lake City progress reports also depict difficulties and complexities of sexual assault and rape cases.

Some of those highlights:

  • So far, only 6 percent of backlogged kit cases have resulted in charges. About 19 percent of cases were declined by the victim. About 7 percent were falsely reported or unfounded. About 15 percent were previously declined.
  • Year to year, the number of sexual offenses reported to Salt Lake police has steadily increased. That number grew from 509 in 2014, 589 in 2015, 695 in 2016, 785 in 2017, and 841 in 2018.

Salt Lake police detective Greg Wilking on Monday said it's not necessarily a negative to see the number of reported sexual offenses rise year to year — but the department will be tracking that number to determine whether the increase is due to more victims being willing to step forward, or to an increase in crimes committed.

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Yet sexual assault and rape remain a difficult crime to prosecute, having often gone unreported. As recently as 2014, the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics found that only one-third of rapes and sexual assaults were being reported to police.

"We'll be watching that," Wilking said of the rising number of sexual offenses reported in Salt Lake City, noting that sexual assault is "less stigmatized now than it ever has been before," especially after the #MeToo movement.

"Hopefully we'll have the ability to look at those numbers and educate as to why this is happening, and maybe we can then drive those numbers down," he said. "But we've got to expose the truth of what's going on first."

Wilking said Tuesday's progress report should emphasize Salt Lake police are "taking these things seriously," and while "we don't think we've got a magic bullet and have fixed everything, we're willing to look at what we can do better."

New policies and training aimed at changing police response to focus on the victim was a "needed change to our response to sexual assault victims," the report for Tuesday's presentation states.

"This compassionate and empathetic approach is now part of our DNA and culture," the report states. "We now use this in all of our victim crimes."

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The progress report on the backlog comes after not just Salt Lake City and Utah, but also cities across the nation, came under fire for having thousands of untested sexual assault kits sitting in police custody due to long crime lab waits.

Since 2014, Salt Lake City has enacted an ordinance mandating all sexual assault kits be tested. The Utah Legislature also passed HB200 mandating all unrestricted sexual assault kits be tested as of May 2017, along with $1.2 million to fund reforms to law enforcement training and rape kit reporting.

As of March 31, more than 4,331 previously unprocessed rape kits have been submitted statewide, and testing has been completed on 3,304 kits, according to the Utah Sexual Assault Kit Initiative's most recent quarterly report.

Of those, 1,584 suspect DNA profiles have been uploaded to the FBI's combined DNA system, and 628 suspects have been identified, including 159 serial offenders, according to the Utah Sexual Assault Kit Initiative.

As the state improves its rape kit response, Salt Lake City has "been at the forefront" of addressing backlogs, while also doing more to focus on the compassionate and careful treatment of victims, said Krystal Hazlett, program coordinator for the initiative.

"There is a shift in law enforcement, in really understanding the trauma-informed, victim-centered approach," Hazlett said.

Rep. Angela Romero, D-Salt Lake City, who sponsored HB200, said Salt Lake City is "heading in the right direction" as local agencies and the state work to reform how rape kits are processed and focus on that "trauma-informed, victim-centered" approach.

"When you look at sexual assault and domestic violence, it's all about power and control and how you ensure you give that victim back their own power," Romero said, adding that she will continue on the state level to increase funding and resources for victims of sexual assault.

"I'm happy we have a system in place so we can track sexual assaults," Romero said. "My hope is that we can still find resources for the victims of this horrific crime."

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