Memphis Rape Kit Fight Gets New Ally 

Manhattan District Attorney's Office announces $35 million fund to help clear nation's rape kit backlog.

Memphis law enforcement got a new national ally last week in its fight to clear the city's backlog of untested rape kits while leaders here promised survivors they'd keep that fight alive.

Memphis Police Department (MPD) Deputy Chief Jim Harvey said last Thursday that the city still needs about $3.7 million to complete its rape kit testing project. 

The day before that, the Manhattan District Attorney's Office announced a new, $35 million fund to help cities like Memphis clear their backlogs. That fund will be the largest single donation to help clear the nation's rape kit backlog, which the Department of Justice says includes more than 400,000 untested kits.  

The announcement from New York City came as a surprise to Memphis leaders even though Manhattan DA Cyrus Vance name-dropped Memphis in his national news conference announcing the fund.      

"What stands in the way of identifying the scope [of the untested rape kit backlog] across the country and then having local law enforcement testing them is, quite simply, money," Vance said.  

The new funds come from money forfeited from national banks that violated U.S. sanctions in aiding rogue regimes across the world, Vance said, specifically pointing to Libya and Sudan.

Applications for the new funds will br available in the spring, and when they are, Memphis will be at the table, said Doug McGowen, director of the Mayor's Innovation Delivery Team. Meanwhile, McGowen said the city will "leave no stone unturned" to find the resources to test the city's rape kits. 

McGowen and Harvey both spoke last week in one of a series of events called "Sexual Assault Survivor Services: A Community Conversation." 

The open meetings were mandated in an executive order by Memphis Mayor A C Wharton. He said during the meeting last week that rape is "a cancer that has to be wiped out." He vowed to the small group gathered at First Baptist Church on Broad Avenue that he'd keep the process transparent.   

"If we find more, you'll hear about them, as embarrassing as that may be," Wharton said. "Hopefully, we've gotten all of them. But if not, and we find more, we're not going to sweep it under the rug. We're going to come right out and tell you that we found some more."

Harvey likened the situation here to the Titanic. The Memphis media has portrayed it as a sinking ship, he said, but "we've sent the cameras down, and we're pulling treasure out of the Titanic." Clues are the treasures he said will lead his agency to arrest "hard-core criminals," whose crimes likely go beyond rape.

"These are violent criminals," he said. "It's not about sex. It's about violence.  So, if we can get one of these guys off the street, then we've stopped them from committing any number of other crimes." 

Meanwhile, Congress is sitting on a $51.2 billion spending bill that includes $41 million for "a new community-based sexual assault response reform initiative." Congressman Steve Cohen (D-Memphis) secured $5 million for the sexual assault program that appeared in versions of the bill that got approvals from House and Senate committees.   

The reform program would include funds for testing rape kits but also for the investigation and prosecution of sexual assault crimes, training law enforcement officers, and victim services. The program is intended to improve law enforcement's response to sexual assault and services to victims.

A budget vote, which includes the rape kit funding, is one of several issues before the lame-duck Congress this week. The government faces another shutdown unless lawmakers can pass a budget or a stop-gap measure by December 11th.

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