The state of Tennessee is responsible for the backlog of untested rape kits in Memphis and should pay for their testing, according to Memphis City Council member Wanda Halbert.
In September, Memphis Police Department director Toney Armstrong told the Memphis City Council that his department had discovered 12,164 untested rape kits. The kits are collections of pieces of evidence gathered after a person reports that they have been sexually assaulted. MPD has used state and local funds to send off 2,226 of these kits for testing so far.
Halbert floated an idea Tuesday to delay a $1 million transfer from the city’s general fund to the Memphis Police Department to begin the process to test additional kits. Halbert said she wanted an admission from the state government that it is at fault for the untested kits before the money was transferred.
She said the state has threatened to intervene in the city’s financial matters in the past, and that now the state is “asking Memphis citizens for money for something that the state should have taken care of.”
“I applaud the city for getting involved with this, and I am not having a problem making an investment but still recognizing this was never a responsibility for the city to begin with,” Halbert said during the council’s public safety committee meeting Tuesday. “For the [Wharton administration], the police, and any attorney sitting in this room, we’re just repeatedly knocking on the door of the citizens of Memphis to pay for others’ challenges and needs, and it hurts Memphis in many ways.”
George Little, the city’s chief administrative officer, told council members that inquiries are now underway to determine what government is ultimately responsible for the untested rape kits but could not say Tuesday if Halbert’s charge was correct. But he warned against any action that would delay the testing of the kits.
“We have pending litigation right now and there’s a discovery process associated with that,” Little said, noting that a federal lawsuit about the kits was filed against the city in December. “The further delay of the testing of the kits will be justice denied to the victims and we’d be on pretty thin ice legally.”
Halbert was resolute in her assertion, however, saying Memphis “is paying for someone else’s job.” But she pulled her amendment that would have delayed the funding transfer to the MPD. The amendment was in a package of financial transfers brought to the council Tuesday from the Wharton administration. The council will vote on the package in its full meeting Tuesday afternoon but could be changed in its next meeting in two weeks.
Halbert said she wants to hear from the state before the final vote is taken on the matter.
Little said the administration is now in talks with state officials to get $2 million for further testing. Wharton said last week that the city needs about $5.5 million to test all of the city’s untested kits.
“I don’t dispute the assertions of Councilwoman Halbert but from my position, they’re irrelevant,” said council member Shea Flinn, “The city and the state failed these people and the list of failures on this is a mile long. We need to just move on and we have the rest of our lives to cast aspersions and point out blame.”