By Ashley Fantz, Sergio Hernandez and Sonam Vashi, CNN Investigates
Thursday, November 29, 2018
Hours after you are raped, you sit in a hospital room, under fluorescent lights, and consent to a forensic exam.
Your body is the crime scene.
When did it happen, a nurse asks. Where did it happen? Can you tell me who did this to you?
The nurse is trained to interview you and search your body for evidence left behind by your attacker. Knowing the details of your assault guides the examination.
Did he ejaculate inside of you, on you? Where did he touch you? Did he use any objects? Did he kiss you, lick you? Have you had anything to drink? Did you shower?
You’re asked to undress slowly while you stand on a special sheet meant to collect any trace evidence that shakes loose.
For three to five hours, the nurse swabs your mouth, your breasts, a bite mark on your neck. She scrapes under your fingernails, combs your pubic hair. She inserts a speculum inside you and drops blue dye on the tissue there to illuminate any places that are torn.
The nurse cuts a hair from your head. She takes photographs of your face and shoulders to pair with your chart, of you in the clothes you wore when you were attacked. Every injury is photographed, too — far away, close-up, with a ruler to show size.
When the exam is over, the nurse puts hair, fibers, swabs, vials of blood and urine in a container smaller than a shoebox. She seals it — your rape kit — and entrusts it to a police officer.
This is the way DNA evidence is collected. This is what you endure so police can identify your assailant, make him pay for what he did.
No one tells you that the exam may be pointless — that police might treat your kit like trash.
A CNN investigation into the destruction of rape kits in dozens of agencies across the country found that police trashed evidence in 400 cases before the statutes of limitations expired or when there was no time limit to prosecute.
The number is likely higher and was arrived at through an analysis of the departments’ own records.
The destruction occurred since 2010 and followed flawed and incomplete investigations that relegated rape kits to shelves in police evidence rooms until they were destroyed. Dozens were trashed mere weeks or months after police took custody of the evidence, records showed.
Almost 80% were never tested for DNA evidence, a process that can identify a suspect or link that person to other crimes.
For the past several years, public attention has focused on the hundreds of thousands of kits that have languished untested. The Justice Department has awarded more than $150 million to test that backlog.
But destruction of rape kits is a lesser-known and more fundamental problem: The evidence is gone. It can never be used to lock up a rapist or set free the wrongfully convicted.
“All the attention toward untested kits isn’t enough if we have agencies destroying kits,” said Wayne County, Michigan, Prosecutor Kym Worthy, whose testing of some 10,000 backlogged rape kits has identified at least 833 suspects linked to more than one sex crime.
“Each one of these kits represents a victim,” said the Detroit-based prosecutor. “What you are doing when you destroy a rape kit is destroying the chance that they are ever going to see justice.”
A woman who reported being gang-raped in 2007 said it was “absolutely devastating” to recently learn that police destroyed her untested kit.
She remembered the nurse at a hospital in Fayetteville, North Carolina, asking her to describe what the four men did so that her body could be positioned in a way that allowed for more precise examination.
“It was very invasive,” she recalled. “It was very degrading. The level of exposure … was a second violation.”
But she steeled herself because the nurse was collecting evidence, and she believed police would test it and use it in their investigation.
Instead, CNN found, the detective assigned to her case did nothing more than interview her. The officer never tried to talk to the men she named as her attackers, misinterpreted the law and concluded that no rape occurred. About a month after speaking with the woman, the detective authorized destruction of the untested rape kit — in a state where there was no time limit to prosecute rape.
“I counted on the police to do what they were supposed to do — to investigate what happened to me and to test that evidence,” she said. “Instead, they treated it like trash. They treated me like trash.”
Veteran sex crimes investigators, along with experts in the law, trauma and forensic science, reviewed case files for CNN. They said investigations indicated that police lacked training in how to interact with victims of sexual violence; in the importance of testing kits, not only to solve the reported assaults but potentially other crimes; and in the need to preserve kits for the length of time the law allows for a prosecution.
“What CNN discovered is a systemic problem,” said Joanne Archambault, a retired sergeant who ran the San Diego Police sex crimes unit for a decade. She examined 56 case files from more than a dozen departments.
“It’s simple — but it’s not the norm — that law enforcement should keep evidence at least for the statute of limitations,” she said. “There are mistakes in these cases, but the worst mistake in each is the destruction of evidence.”
Twenty-five agencies in 14 states destroyed kits tied to cases while they could still be prosecuted.
Department leaders at some agencies defended the destruction by saying officers approved disposal of kits in closed cases they believed had no chance of moving forward. This was a routine process, they said, done to make space in evidence rooms.
At least five departments acknowledged that the decision to destroy kits was made without considering the statutes of limitations. Three stopped trashing kits because of CNN’s inquiries.
Experts said the destruction shows that rape is treated differently than other violent crimes.
“Would we test all the evidence” in a murder? “You bet,” said police trainer Tom Tremblay.
The former Vermont police chief, who has reviewed rape investigations for the US Department of Justice, examined cases from nine agencies.
The language police sometimes used, he and other experts said, suggested bias — describing victims’ accounts of their rapes as “having sex,” asking whether victims experienced orgasms and focusing on a victim’s behavior rather than the suspect’s.
All of it, Tremblay said, communicates one thing to a victim: You are not believed.
Worthy understands personally what’s at stake. She isn’t just a prosecutor; she’s a survivor. She was raped in law school, she said, and — like an estimated 68% of rape and sexual assault victims nationally — chose not to report her attack.
It is a triumph, Worthy said, when a victim musters the courage to go to police and consent to a rape exam. And destroying a rape kit is a betrayal.
Police Chief Harold Medlock was nervous. City attorneys had urged him to keep quiet, he said. But the Fayetteville, North Carolina, chief resisted. He was going public.
It was September 21, 2015, and Medlock was moments away from revealing that his department had destroyed 333 rape kits.
The evidence wasn’t trashed in some unfortunate mishap. For more than a decade, detectives had the sole power to greenlight destruction of rape kits in their cases, and they did so sometimes just months after victims reported their assaults. The objective was, in part, to make space in the evidence room. Most of the destroyed kits had never been tested.
In a recent interview, Medlock reflected on his decision to hold a press conference announcing the department’s failure to preserve kits. He said he had been warned that revealing the destruction could trigger lawsuits. But as he stepped to the podium, his mind was heavy with other fears.
Would the community ever trust the police again? Did the destruction of even one kit mean a rapist got away and went on to attack another victim?
As cameras snapped and reporters shouted questions, the chief owned up to the mistakes. He also asked his detectives to notify all of the victims about what had happened and, if possible, reinvestigate their assaults.
Fayetteville police said they stopped destroying kits in the fall of 2009, before North Carolina enacted a law prohibiting the disposal of biological evidence in unsolved rape and homicide cases. The chief’s revelation prompted CNN to examine whether the practice was widespread and ongoing.
Reporters sent records requests to law enforcement agencies in every state — 207 departments in all — asking them to provide detailed information about any kit destroyed since 2010.
Four departments either refused to provide the information or did not respond to CNN’s repeated requests. The others split almost evenly: 102 said they had not destroyed kits. The 99 agencies that reported destruction were spread over 47 states. Records showed kits were trashed as recently as 2016, the year reporters made the requests. And interviews with several agencies indicate that the destruction either stopped this year or continues.
Comparing the work of police agencies proved difficult because of incomplete information and a lack of uniformity in how police classify cases. Departments said many kits were destroyed after the statutes of limitations expired, after cases reached resolutions in court or when an investigation demonstrated that a crime had not occurred. Those are circumstances in which it could be permissible to dispose of the evidence, some experts said. CNN excluded kits destroyed in those scenarios from its analysis.
Reporters also excluded tested rape kits destroyed by agencies that kept items from those kits (or whose crime labs did) because that evidence could help prosecutors bring charges. Forensics experts and defense attorneys, however, said the entire kit needs to be maintained to preserve a defendant’s right to re-test the evidence and challenge the original analysis.
CNN identified agencies that reported destroying kits in less than two years. Requests for case files yielded more than 1,400 investigations from mostly small and medium-sized cities.
To determine whether kits were destroyed while there was still time to prosecute, reporters applied the shortest possible statutes of limitations for the sex crimes listed in case files. CNN’s tally is likely an undercount; some cases could have carried longer statutes of limitations than reporters could determine or no statutes of limitations at all.
Reporters focused on cases in which rape kits were destroyed after investigators were unable to identify or apprehend a suspect, prosecutors declined to file a charge or an investigation stopped because leads ran dry or a victim showed a reluctance to continue.
Destroying kits in those circumstances is misguided, experts said; police are failing to recognize that the passage of time can work on behalf of an investigation. A victim can decide to engage with police after a few years, and new evidence can emerge, making a prosecution possible.
“Even if a victim doesn’t want to be involved now doesn’t mean they won’t change their mind,” said David LaBahn, president of the national Association of Prosecuting Attorneys and a career California prosecutor. “If you have a statute of limitations that is still open, and a victim does change their mind but you’ve destroyed the kit — that’s a problem.”
Some experts said police should test and keep kits beyond the statutes of limitations because they have the potential to help solve other cases.
DNA recovered from a rape kit can be compared to the more than 17 million profiles taken from crime scenes, convicted offenders, detainees and arrestees contained in the national law enforcement database system known as CODIS. That process can not only identify assailants but link them to other crimes.
In California, police used decades-old kits — kept well beyond the statute of limitations for rape at the time — to help solve a serial killer cold case. Improved technology allowed police to match DNA in those kits to murders committed by the notorious Golden State Killer in the 1970s and 1980s. That profile, in turn, matched Joseph James DeAngelo, authorities said. He was arrested in April and has so far been charged with 13 counts of murder, some involving other offenses related to rape, robbery and burglary
In addition to cold cases, preserving and testing rape kits has the potential to help solve future crimes. Detectives investigating a rape, for example, may be able to link a suspect’s DNA to an earlier sexual assault in which DNA was uploaded to CODIS and establish a pattern of criminal behavior — something not uncommon among rapists and child molesters.
Last year, the federal government released guidelines on preserving kits. The National Institute of Justice recommends maintaining rape kits in “uncharged or unsolved reported cases” for at least 50 years or the length of the statute of limitations. But police are only obligated to follow their states’ evidence retention laws, which vary widely. Some require evidence be kept only after an arrest or conviction, and even those differ in whether that happens automatically or only after a convict files a petition. Others mandate retention when a case is still being investigated. Local jurisdictions can also enact their own rules governing when evidence must be kept.
The accused may have just as much at stake in the preservation of evidence as victims.
“[A defendant] has a right to have his own experts review that material,” said New Hampshire defense attorney Michael Iacopino, who has served on the board of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. “The analysis that was done…was [it] done correctly? Was it potentially contaminated?”
The ability to test or re-test the items in a rape kit played a role in overturning at least 195 convictions for rape, murder and other crimes since 1992, according to CNN’s analysis of data supplied by The National Registry of Exonerations.
Keith Harward spent 33 years in prison after being wrongfully convicted of rape and murder. He walked out of a Virginia prison in 2016 because a rape kit and other evidence was maintained and could be tested. That analysis not only showed he was innocent but also identified the man who committed the crime.
“If it hadn’t been for the rape kit, I’d probably still be in prison,” said Harward, who was serving a life sentence. “So I say [to police], ‘What are you afraid of… by holding all the rape kits?’… Would you rather somebody [who’s innocent] get executed?”
During a life-threatening trauma like rape, the defense circuitry of the brain drives the victim’s sole objective: to survive.
Reflexes govern reaction — running away, punching the attacker, lying there paralyzed. Stress hormones can impair a victim’s memory and the ability to make complex, rational decisions.
Investigators trained in the effects of trauma know that a victim’s first account of an assault may not be complete, experts said, and it may not be the best time to ask some questions.
Yet documents CNN examined showed officers sometimes asked questions that threatened to overwhelm victims or put them on the defensive.
Did you say no? Did you fight back? Why didn’t you call police right away?
A traumatized person’s instinct is often to avoid the pain that can come from retelling or reliving the experience. Avoidance and withdrawal are common symptoms of post-traumatic stress syndrome. But when victims pulled away from investigations soon after they reported being assaulted, when the trauma was fresh, some police officers were quick to label them uncooperative and close their cases.
“We’re trained to sniff out the liar,” said Justin Boardman, a former Utah police detective who teaches cops how to understand trauma. “So when you don’t give us this training that says — ‘Oh, she’s pulling away because she’s traumatized, or she can’t tell me this detail because she legit can’t remember’ — we think she’s lying or she’s hiding something.”
Experts who reviewed cases said detectives appeared to rush victims into making consequential decisions, effectively ending some cases. They noted that investigators violated longstanding best practices by asking victims if they wanted to prosecute their attackers soon after reporting the assaults to police — sometimes the same day. That question, they said, can intimidate victims and cause them to withdraw.
Prosecution should be discussed only after a thorough investigation is complete, experts said, when a prosecutor — not a victim — has determined that charges can be filed.
Some victims who expressed reluctance to proceed with a prosecution were asked to sign forms attesting to that. But victims should not be given waivers declining prosecution, according to guidelines by the International Association of Chiefs of Police as far back as 2005. Only the statute of limitations should constrain a victim’s right to change her or his mind about moving forward with a prosecution, the association says.
More recently issued guidelines also stress that an investigator should try to spend time building rapport with a victim. Unless the public is in imminent danger, law enforcement should work at a pace comfortable for the victim.
Some case files showed detectives closed cases and called victims uncooperative if they didn’t meet arbitrary deadlines.
In North Charleston, South Carolina, a woman reported being raped at knifepoint by a man who had once been a sexual partner. Police noted she’d been arrested for prostitution two years earlier and quizzed her about whether he was a client. She told them no. Though she did not know her assailant’s name, she called police twice after her initial interview with information she thought might help identify him, according to the case file.
But when she failed to return a detective’s call in a week’s time, he wrote that she was uncooperative and ended the investigation 17 days after she reported being raped. Her kit — never tested — was destroyed less than a year later, even though testing might have identified the man. There was no statute of limitations on the crime, meaning the woman should have had as much time as she needed to help police pursue her assailant.
North Charleston’s detective bureau commander, Major Scott Perry, declined to specify why the kit was destroyed. “Each case is evaluated on its own facts,” he said, adding that the investigation could be reopened at any time if the victim re-approached police. He conceded, however, that not having the rape kit would make the case “more difficult to prosecute.”
In Springfield, Missouri, police labeled victims uncooperative when they didn’t respond to letters mailed to their homes warning that they had 10 business days to contact a detective or their assaults would not be further investigated. In at least six cases, records show, a detective sent the letter the day the officer was assigned to investigate.
The victims had undergone rape exams and given initial accounts to patrol officers, actions that demonstrated a desire for the crimes to be investigated. But when victims didn’t meet that 10-day deadline, Springfield police sometimes sent another letter, telling victims their “failure” to respond led to the closing of their cases. The kits were later destroyed, even though the crimes remained within the statutes of limitations.
Springfield Police Chief Paul Williams said the 10-day letter is a tool used in all kinds of cases to spur a victim to work with police. He said investigators should use it only as a last resort — after a detective has exhausted every other means to reach a victim. He did not explain why some letters were sent immediately after victims reported being raped.
The letter is “a way to justify not doing your job,” said Archambault, the retired San Diego sex crimes investigator who reviewed cases. It should never be sent to rape victims, she said.
“It’s horrendous. This type of response will guarantee that the majority of victims will not participate in the investigation.”
Victims sometimes leave their homes because they are afraid an attacker will find them again. It’s “absurd,” she said, to expect victims to check the mail and respond to a demand.
“It isn’t that [victims] are being uncooperative. They’re just dealing with survival. They’re trying to get out of bed, get their clothes on, get to work, get the kids to school,” Archambault said.
Police should instead give victims time — and access to counseling and services that help them feel safe, experts said. After that, they are far more likely to work with law enforcement.
A woman in West Valley, Utah, said she told police she was terrified that her rapist would hunt her down again, but she received neither time nor support.
According to her case file, the woman told a patrol officer that a man she’d broken up with came to her home and raped her. He ordered her to “shut her mouth,” or he would “hurt her,” she told the officer. He forced her into his car. She said she eventually managed to jump out and run into a K-Mart, where someone called 911.
The woman gave police an initial statement about the assault and underwent a rape exam. Ten days later, on January 27, 2009, Detective Ryan Humphrey noted that she called him. She said she was “scared to pursue charges,” he wrote in the case file.
He shut down the investigation.
CNN reached the woman, who was upset to learn that her rape kit was destroyed and never tested. She called the failure to analyze it “pathetic.”
Police did not offer to take steps to protect her, she said. If they had, she might have gained confidence and worked with police. She said she wishes they’d told her, “‘Well, we can still help you through this.’” (She asked that her name be withheld, and CNN does not typically identify sexual assault victims.)
Humphrey, who no longer works for the department, said that in the 10 days between the woman’s report and her phone call, he did not try to locate and interview the suspect or do any other work on the case.
Like investigators at other agencies, Humphrey said resources were tight, and he struggled under the weight of a heavy caseload.
He closed the investigation, he said, because he assumed that the district attorney wouldn’t file charges in a case without a victim’s cooperation.
As he reflected on the case, he acknowledged he could have given the woman more time by leaving the case open and trying to build trust and rapport with her. He could have done what experts said is protocol: offer her a safety plan to allay her fears, such as patrolling near her home or helping her file a restraining order.
He agreed that the woman could have changed her mind and re-engaged when she was ready — her right in a state that had no statute of limitations to prosecute rape at the time she reported the crime.
“Obviously, she wanted to pursue it,” he said, “because she went to the hospital and had a rape exam done.”
Humphrey said he did not authorize destruction of the woman’s rape kit but understood that once he closed a case, the evidence would be disposed.
Her kit should have been preserved, he said. Not keeping the investigation open was “a mistake. I look back at this case and can see that….”
There are many obstacles to a successful rape investigation. A victim is too scared to continue working with police. A suspect claims sex was consensual. Testing a kit doesn’t crack a case.
But those circumstances shouldn’t necessarily end an investigation. Officers can press pause and set cases aside, then reopen them if there’s a break — a victim changes his or her mind, new leads emerge, technology improves and evidence can be retested.
Yet CNN identified 17 departments that destroyed a combined 92 kits in sex crimes investigations that police described as open or in other terms that mean the same thing, such as inactive or suspended.
In Idaho, Coeur d’Alene Police Chief Lee White acknowledged that his department discarded rape kits in cases marked inactive.
“Sometimes,” he said, “it appears we were too quick at the trigger to dispose.”
In Farmington, New Mexico, police reported destroying kits in at least eight cases labeled inactive. Chief Steve Hebbe reviewed those cases and said the kits should not have been trashed. He then ordered a major change.
“We will not destroy sexual assault kits,” he said. “We’re not going to destroy them until after the statute of limitations is out.” The chief also said he made sure his officers received fresh training in sex crimes investigations.
Proper training includes an understanding of what DNA testing can do — even when suspects claim sex was consensual. In several departments, CNN found officers failed to test kits in so-called consent cases because they believed testing would only demonstrate that sex occurred, not whether a crime occurred.
That’s short-sighted, experts said. A DNA profile of the suspect in a consent case could match a DNA profile of an unidentified attacker in another rape, connecting those crimes and helping to solve them both. The testing of the backlog in Wayne County, Michigan, has linked kits in “consent” cases to suspects in other sexual assaults, said prosecutor Worthy.
CNN also discovered cases in which police listed “insufficient evidence” as a reason to destroy kits that were never analyzed. Testing might have produced evidence, advancing investigations while there was still time to prosecute.
Even a tested kit that fails to yield DNA evidence during an initial analysis should be preserved, forensic experts said, because testing technology is constantly improving. DNA that couldn’t be detected just a few years ago can sometimes be recovered today.
Blake Nakamura, the chief deputy prosecutor in Utah’s Salt Lake County, said he came to understand the importance of preserving evidence in sex crimes cases years ago.
Nakamura has been on both sides in the courtroom. As a private defense attorney, he successfully defended a man accused of sexually abusing a child by blocking the admission of evidence. When he became a prosecutor, he wanted to be able to admit all evidence and knew he had to protect rape kits from destruction.
So in 2011, he sent a memo to police departments in his county, notifying them to keep all evidence in sex offense cases. At least two failed to follow his directive: Salt Lake City and West Valley. They provided records to CNN showing they continued to destroy kits for at least a couple more years.
They also provided documentation showing why: Prosecutors in Nakamura’s office approved the destruction.
When CNN showed those records to Nakamura, he was irate. He later spoke with his staff in colorful language he said he couldn’t share. But the prosecutor feels certain they got his message.
It is particularly egregious, experts said, to destroy rape kits belonging to children, the most vulnerable victims.
Young victims often can’t express what happened to them, so their rape kits can speak for them. The evidence can prove abuse because suspects, unlike in adult cases, can’t argue that sexual contact was consensual.
Statutes of limitations for teenagers and children typically do not start until victims reach adulthood.
“It takes years to comprehend the trauma of child sex abuse, well into adulthood, to decide whether to move forward,” said Marci Hamilton, a professor and attorney who analyzed juvenile cases for CNN to determine whether they had been destroyed before the statutes of limitations.
“What police do when they destroy rape kits, and other evidence of crimes against children before the statute of limitations has passed, is rob them of their full chance at justice.”
Hamilton and CNN identified 47 children’s and teenagers’ rape kits that were destroyed before the statutes of limitations expired or where there was no time limit to prosecute. At least 39 were untested.
CNN’s analysis did not include “unfounded” cases, those in which police determined that no crime was attempted or occurred. But Hamilton, whose non-profit CHILD USA advocates for sexual abuse victims, argued that given the complexity of child sex abuse, juvenile reports should rarely be labeled unfounded.
In Fallon, Nevada, a detective dismissed a 7-year-old’s case as unfounded, partly because the child looked away from him as he questioned her in 2013. The girl described how a man had assaulted her anally, orally and vaginally the previous night, and then methodically cleansed her body.
Even though the child was consistent in describing the incident to others, the detective said her body language — looking away — indicated she was being deceptive.
The detective suggested to her parents that they get her psychological help.
Police destroyed the girl’s untested rape kit seven months after the allegations of abuse were made.
Experts said the 7-year-old’s account should have raised a red flag; until children reach puberty and start to have sexual urges, they are generally incapable of imagining rape scenarios. The detective, they added, seemed to judge the child’s body language as he would an adult’s.
The police chief in Fallon, Kevin Gehman, said the girl’s account was fully investigated but acknowledged “some weaknesses in the investigative process.” He would not elaborate.
CNN’s questions about the case prompted a review of all sexual assault investigations by the police and the city attorney. As a result, the attorney instructed police to stop destroying rape kits.
Hamilton and other experts said it is rare for minors to disclose abuse soon after it occurs. Out of fear or confusion — or because predators manipulate them — young victims may delay talking about what happened for years, if not decades. That’s all the more reason to maintain their rape kits.
When children report what happened immediately, “it’s extraordinary,” Hamilton said. “When they have a rape kit, that’s a gift.”
As head of the Fayetteville Police Department cold case unit, Lieutenant John Somerindyke discovered the massive rape kit destruction that prompted Chief Medlock to hold a press conference. Both men felt compelled to right the department’s wrong.
Somerindyke has spent the last two years looking at old rape cases, figuring out whether the sex crimes involving more than 300 victims could be reinvestigated — without their rape kits.
In the beginning, he could barely get through the reports. “I was angry,” he said. “It got to the point where I had to stop reading…It was getting so disheartening.”
Many cases looked as though they could have been solved, but the investigations were deeply flawed. The problems were the result of a lack of training, he said, but also a department culture that failed to take sex crimes as seriously as other violent felonies.
“The priority was homicides. After that, it was business robberies and aggravated assaults,” he said. “The emphasis wasn’t placed on rapes.”
He said detectives were working rape cases “probably like we work a crackhead that got robbed in the projects at 2 in the morning.”
The lieutenant was disgusted by the way police treated evidence differently.
“I don’t think we were just getting rid of the guns like we were with the rape kits.”
The evidence audit Somerindyke was asked to perform has helped the department identify its weaknesses in sex crimes investigations and learn from its mistakes.
Auditing sex crimes investigations, experts said, should be routine in law enforcement. It’s not.
One law enforcement agency — the Philadelphia Police Department — holds itself accountable every year for how sex crimes are investigated by reviewing its cases side-by-side with attorneys from the Philadelphia Women’s Law Project.
That effort began after a 1999 Philadelphia Inquirer investigation revealed that police had mishandled sex crimes cases for two decades.
The collaboration “overnight had the effect of demonstrating that there could be credibility in terms of the investigative process,” said Chuck Wexler, head of the Police Executive Research Forum, an industry leader in advocating best practices. “There’s definitely a need for that kind of quality control.”
He’s long encouraged agencies to replicate “The Philadelphia Model,” but Wexler had trouble thinking of departments that have done so.
In May, the forum issued guidelines saying police should not only do internal reviews of investigations but bring in outside experts to examine cases, too.
“It’s the essence of community policing,” said Carol Tracy, an attorney and director of the Women’s Law Project. She reviewed rape investigations from five agencies for CNN and has consulted with departments across the country grappling with their backlog of untested rape kits.
“Kits being destroyed — that is something I didn’t realize was happening,” she said.
She said she doubts the public knows that poorly conducted investigations play a role in improper rape kit destruction. “They don’t know so they aren’t applying pressure to departments to make them audit their work.”
Fayetteville’s effort to be transparent about the past meant trying to contact the victims whose kits were destroyed. Somerindyke and his officers reached 260 victims; three agreed to work with police again. One of the reopened cases ended with a successful prosecution.
Somerindyke remains hopeful and still talks about getting justice for rape victims. His drive is partly tied to his own feelings of guilt. He worked sex crimes years ago and was among the detectives who signed off on the destruction of rape kits.
“We really want to do the right thing now,” the lieutenant said. “The right thing wasn’t done a long time ago.”
He said the bad police work wasn’t malicious. It was the result of poor training or no training at all on sexual violence and its impact. It was old-fashioned bias that ruined cases. It was a failure to hire enough investigators and treat rape like a serious crime.
Had Somerindyke been asked before the audit whether his police department had improperly destroyed kits or mishandled rape investigations, he would not have known the answer.
“We thought we were doing things the right way.”
He hopes the turmoil in Fayetteville sends a message to other law enforcement agencies that are destroying rape kits.
“Stop,” he said. “Get training. Look at what you’re doing. Reassess.”
Are you a survivor? An investigator? Resources for you
For sexual assault survivors:
- Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN)’s survivor helpline 800-656-4673 routes callers to a local affiliate organization nearby and offers online counselors.
- Love is Respect’s National Teen Dating Abuse Helpline 866-331-9474 or online chat offers staff trained in aspects of physical, emotional and sexual abuse in relationships.
- End Rape on Campus offers free, direct support for survivors of sexual assault in college campuses at 212-281-0323.
- The National Sexual Violence Resource Center offers publications and an extensive library on all issues related to sexual violence and its prevention.
- The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline gives 24/7 help at 800-273-8255; Spanish speakers: 888-628-9454. Those who are deaf or hard of hearing should call 800-799-4889.
For law enforcement officers:
- The International Association of Chiefs of Police offers Trauma Informed Sexual Assault Training that is free. The group offers many more resources including best practice investigative strategies.
- The US Department of Justice offers tips on how to prevent gender bias from affecting investigations.
- End Violence Against Women International, founded by a veteran sex crimes detective, offers an online training school for sexual assault investigation, tips on interviewing techniques and a 40-page training bulletin on trauma-informed protocol.
- The Police Executive Research Forum has a new report that offers “Practical Approaches for Strengthening Law Enforcement’s Response to Sexual Assault.”
- AEquitas is a nonprofit made up of former prosecutors who evaluate and develop prosecution practices related to gender-based violence. The organization offers training globally to professionals who deal with sex crimes.