Government officials from across the country wrapped up a two-day summit on sexual assault kits here Tuesday, meeting behind closed doors to share strategies on fighting backlogs of the untested kits.
Leaders from Detroit, Houston, and Cleveland were here for the second annual Sexual Assault Kit Summit for Cities. The first was held in Cleveland last year.
Through presentations and smaller sessions, participants shared what’s worked to help clear backlogs in their cities. Many of them lauded Memphis for its efforts to clear its backlog of rape kits.
In 2014, officials here discovered more than 12,300 untested rape kits in evidence lockers across the Memphis Police Department system. As of August, 30 percent remain untested, according to figures form the city’s Sexual Assault Kit Task Force.
The task force has focused on testing the kits, vowing to test them all. It’s an effort Memphis Mayor A C Wharton said Tuesday that “we pioneered here in Memphis” and it has now spread to 11 other cities.
He said the effort is “a battle against the monsters in our community who prey on our most vulnerable citizens.” But he said it is also centered on survivors making sure they get the resources they need to help them restore their lives.
“(The rape kits) contain a trove of evidence that provide new opportunities not to just seek justice for the victims of sexual assault but also opportunities to solve other crimes such as burglaries and armed robberies and murder that rapists and known to frequently commit,” Wharton said.
Kim Worthy, Prosecutor for Michigan’s Wayne County (Detroit), said the county started with 11,341 untested kits. Officials there have tested over 10,000 and have identified over 549 serial rapists.
“Result from the testing led to crimes and associations in 38 other states,” Worthy said. “In other words, there’s just 11 states that have not been touched by our rape kit issue in one city, Detroit, one county, Wayne, and one state, Michigan. This is a nationwide problem.”
Tim McGinty, the Cuyahoga County (Cleveland) Prosecutor, called the untested kits a “gold mine of evidence” that can help prevent future crimes by taking criminals off the streets. He had one message for rapists in Cleveland: “We’re coming to get you.”
“We’re going to stop them,” McGinty said. “We’re learning from Memphis’ success and we’re looking at their stats. They’re undeniable. They’re unprecedented.”
The meeting was sealed to the public and to the press, a fact that drew criticism from many here.
The officials explained that they were sharing strategies they didn’t want criminals to know. Also, they were sharing information about cases, something they could not do in the public eye.
Here’s how Wharton explained the move:
“This was not a meeting in which we exchanged pleasantries. They were actually talking about strategies.
This is a war. It’s a war against predators and in the rules of engagement I don’t think you open the doors and say everybody come in.
You never know when a question that comes from Memphis might have an impact on something in Detroit. If this were just a a jolly, jolly, war-story type of meeting it would have been…(trails off). But this was actual strategies. This was not a how-you-doing type session.”
McGinty explained it this way:
We talked about tactics and successes and failures. I do not want to advise the rapist on how we’re coming to get them. I just want them to know we’re coming to get them.
I don’t want them to know where we failed. I don’t want the rapist to have any advantage at all. I want these rapists - in particular serial rapists - to know that their number’s up and we’re coming to get them.
Do these guys watch TV? Yeah, rapists watch TV. Do they read newspapers? Yeah, they read newspapers.
We’re not going to give them any warning, except this (meeting) to tell them that we’re coming to get them. We’re not going to tell them how we’re coming to get them. In Cleveland, we’re coming to get them.
Here’s what Worthy said:
“We have ethical considerations, too. When we’re discussing evidence, evidence that we have to go to court, and that we have to get beyond a legal standard before it can be legally used in a trial.
We don’t want to be hamstrung here. We want to be able to discuss cases, whether they are open or closed, especially if they’re pending.
The (point of the meeting) is to make a point and move forward and learn from each other with the names and the cases that we cannot mention and talk publicly about when it comes to the associated forensic evidence. It has to be passed on by a judge before we can discuss it openly and in court.”
Detroit will host the next rape kit summit next year.