In October, representatives from 11 cities with rape kit backlogs — from Seattle to Charlotte, North Carolina — will be in Memphis for the second annual Sexual Assault Kit Summit for Cities. The conference, which is not open to the public, was founded collectively by the rape kit task forces in Detroit, Cleveland, and Memphis. Doug McGowen is the coordinator of the Memphis Sexual Assault Task Force, which is organizing the summit. — Alexandra Pusateri
Flyer: Why is the summit being held here?
Doug McGowen: Last October, Cuyahoga County — which is where Cleveland is located — hosted the very first summit for cities that had a significant inventory of untested sexual assault kits. At that summit, Cleveland, Detroit, and Memphis came together to talk about our shared experiences.
We decided that we would form an alliance of our three cities around the principles that we were already committed to — testing 100 percent of the kits in our possession and 100 percent of the kits collected going forward, that we would take a victim-centered approach to make sure that we always keep the victim and survivor at the center of everything we do, and that we would take a multidisciplinary approach. We found some great value last year in learning from our peers in other cities. We agreed last year that this should be an annual event and that we should expand the number of cities that are able to participate.
Are rape kit backlogs a problem across the country?
The estimate nationally is that there are 400,000 untested kits, so we know that there are other cities that perhaps have not begun to work on this problem. We invite those cities to come and learn from our experience. We think it's important to collectively hold ourselves accountable to the very best practices there are around the country. This kind of open dialogue between cities is the only way we're going to get a better result across the nation.
Where are we in the process of clearing Memphis' rape kit backlog?
When we began this work in October 2013, we had about 12,000 kits in our inventory, and that included kits that had already been tested, kits that had been partially tested, and kits that were untested. Since that time, every kit we have collected has immediately been sent for testing. For those kits in our inventory, just under 40 percent of all kits have completed testing. Another 20 percent are at the forensic labs undergoing analysis. We still have about 40 percent that we have yet to ship off to the forensic laboratories. But we are committed to testing 100 percent of those kits. Every single month, we're sending hundreds of kits to private forensic laboratories, and we won't stop until it's completed.
How is our progress compared to other cities?
No one has the same number of kits, and no one started at the same time. It's very difficult to compare city to city. New York City has already completed testing on 17,000 kits, but they did that 10 years ago. Los Angeles had 11,000 kits, and there are still some today. We are on pace with what our peer cities have done. We have made significant progress, but we still have work to do. One thing I can tell you is that the results we are seeing from the testing are completely parallel to the results they're seeing in other cities. In other words, the number of kits we are testing that are coming back with a positive result are coming back in the same rate as they did in other cities.