Transcript: Why Were So Many Sexual Assault Kits Not Tested in Detroit?

April 2014 interview with Dr. Rebecca Campbell, Ph.D., Michigan State University

One of the things that we looked at in the Detroit project was to try to understand how do you get this problem? How do you get so many untested sexual assault kits? What are the risk factors in a community for developing this problem? So one of the things we did in our project was try to take a step back and study how do you develop a large number of untested sexual assault kits? What are the contextual risk factors?

In trying to answer that question, we wanted to take a systemic approach. And by systemic I mean what was happening not just in the police department, but in the relationship between the police and the crime lab; and between the police, the crime lab, and the prosecutor’s office; the police, the crime lab, the prosecutor’s office, and the medical system, because you don’t have a kit that will sit in property if the medical system didn’t collect it in the first place. So what was happening in the medical system over time? Where was victim advocacy throughout this whole process? So to understand how and why a community has so many untested kits—or to put it another way, what are the risk factors for communities developing this problem—you have to look at all of these different systems.

One of the main risk factors we found was that there was no policy or protocol. So the decision regarding whether an individual kit would be tested was made on an individual basis. So an individual police officer would make a decision whether a kit would be tested, yes or no; laboratory, yes or no; or a prosecutor, yes or no. There was no broad-based policy that said “This is what ought to happen in all cases or under these kinds of cases.” No protocol in place that dictated what we should be doing regarding kit testing.

It was very much case by case. The decision of whether a kit was going to be tested in Detroit over the 30-year history that we looked at, it was on a case-by-case basis. So that is a key risk factor. If you leave that kind of decision to the discretion of individual people, one by one by one, case by case by case, they can make the decision not to test it, and they can make that decision a lot. And over time, you can get a very large number of kits sitting in police property.

A second risk factor we found was the person power, the personnel available to do the testing and to work these cases. So for example, in Detroit we found that the Detroit Crime Lab had two DNA scientists. Two scientists. Now that sounds low, and it is objectively low, so we looked at comparisons in other cities that have similar crime rates, similar populations. In the same period of time, they had 6, 8, 10, 14, 20 or more DNA scientists. Detroit had two.

The time period that we’re looking at here is from 1980 to 2009. So over that period of time, the Detroit Police Department sex crimes unit had two 50-percent reductions in their staffing levels to work on sex crimes cases. Then we turned to the prosecutor’s office. A lot of talk at the national level about best practice is to have a designated unit to work on sexual assault cases. They certainly had the interest; they didn’t have the person power. They were not able to form a designated sexual assault team until 2009.

And that’s important because then you don’t have a designated unit to be able to constantly check back with the police: “What’s your policy? What’s your protocol? What are you doing? Hey, laboratory: what’s your policy? What’s your protocol?” They were handling all levels of felonies, all types of crimes, day in, day out. They did not have the resources for a dedicated unit to watch and to talk with and to collaborate with the other pieces in the criminal justice system to say, “What are you doing with sexual assault cases?”

Another key risk factor we found for developing this problem was constant transitions in leadership. So for example, at the Detroit Police Department, the police chief turned over every 2.2 years, so a little over every two years, there’s a new chief. And if it was just the chief, that might be one thing. But what we found was that the transition wasn’t just at the chief level; it trickled down, all the way down to the supervising officer, the supervising personnel of the sex crimes unit. So about every 2.2 years, whole new sheriff in town, whole new leadership team in town. So the idea that you could have a problem and that it would be developing and that nobody would know about it, well that’s very easy to understand if you’re turning over your leadership every 2.2 years. Or alternatively, you identify that there is a problem, and you’re trying to mount a response to it. Well, it’s going to take more than 2.2 years to try to really remedy the situation. So a constant transition in leadership makes it difficult to identify large-scale problems and makes it incredibly difficult to respond to them.

So the medical system was feeding doubt into the legal system about whether the kit was even useful. Because the people collecting the kits were not specially trained, didn’t really understand how that evidence could be useful in an investigation. So they had years and years and years of hospital emergency room department doctors saying, “Well, I collected the kit, but I don’t know if it’ll be useful to you.” So you have to understand what was the relationship between medical and legal over the time that kits were developing. Or another way to put it: A risk factor for developing this problem is not having a good relationship between medical and legal. If the medical system and the legal system are not working together, if there’s not good medical forensic services available in a community, it can contribute to a large number of untested sexual assault kits.

And in Detroit, they did not have community-based advocacy services, by and large, over the time that these kits were collected. So they didn’t have someone from the nonprofit social service agency, like a rape crisis center, that would be available to help victims in hospital emergency departments and advocate on their behalf for the police. What we found was that over the period of time that these kits were accumulating, Detroit had, on average, one—one victim advocate. Not one agency. One advocate trying to serve this entire city, to provide emotional support, informational support to victims, and to do that advocacy with the police, to say, “Hey, where’s her kit? What’s happening with her kit? What’s happening with his kit?” So again, how does this contribute to a large number of untested kits? If you don’t have those agitators, if you don’t have the advocates providing support to the victims so the victim can ask for himself or herself, or the advocate stepping in to say, “Hey, what’s happening with rape kits in this community?” you can see how more and more of them are going to be accumulating over time.

So these risk factors that we identified in Detroit I think do have applicability to other jurisdictions. It may not play out the same way in every city, every town, every state. And certainly the resource challenges that we’ve had in Detroit are different than what they’ve had in other communities throughout the United States. But I think the underlying messages are important, and I think the underlying findings are important and can apply to other jurisdictions. Ask: Do you have a policy and protocol? What’s been happening with staffing? Do you have enough staff to respond to this? What’s been happening with leadership and transitions and supervision of the sex crimes unit? Where has the medical system been involved and what kind of collaboration is going on between medical and legal? Where’s victim advocacy? Those are universal issues. Those are the things that affect how a sexual assault kit is processed, how an investigation proceeds, how prosecution unfolds. So understanding in each and every community what is happening in those key factors and whether they’re risk factors in each community is important to understand.