A report released by the Federal Bureau of Investigation on Tuesday found that police departments across the United States have failed to investigate reports of sexual assault with adequate “vigor and care” and that major reforms are necessary.
The report is the culmination of the FBI’s Sexual Assault Kit Initiative, an effort to address a national backlog of tens of thousands of kits that have sat on shelves untested for years and even decades.
Since 2015, about 40,000 kits were tested as part of the program, of which 13,521 yielded a DNA profile of high enough quality that it could be entered into the FBI’s database. In nearly half of those cases, the DNA profile matched an individual already in the system.
The results demonstrate not only a failure to provide justice for victims of sexual assault but a failure to prevent future assaults from occurring, the report concludes.
‘Devastating And Costly’
In one example cited by the bureau, a kit submitted by a woman who said she was raped at a 2010 holiday party in Washington was not tested until 2016. The results matched a man who had already been released from prison after being convicted of a second assault that occurred only weeks after the initial report.
Another kit tested by the FBI in 2017 from a 2011 North Carolina case linked the DNA to a man who was in prison for a 2016 kidnapping, robbery, and rape. A kit tested by another lab also linked the man to a 1998 assault.
“The delay in processing the evidence was devastating and costly,” the FBI said.
Further, the bureau concludes that “the primary lesson learned from the backlog is that law enforcement should investigate each incident of reported sexual assault with vigor and care,” suggesting this has not always been the case in the years leading up the report.
In some cases, backlogged kits date back to a time when DNA profiling was not yet well developed. But in tens of thousands of cases since, the bureau attributes to the failure to test the kits to underfunding of state crime labs and a “lack of training and understanding” on the part of law enforcement officials.
This April marks Sexual Assault Awareness Month. #LawEnforcement continues their efforts to address the backlog of sexual assault kits nationwide. The FBI Laboratory alone tested more than 3,600 kits between 2015-2018. https://t.co/JEteYc9CpR
— FBI Los Angeles (@FBILosAngeles) April 2, 2019
In Kentucky, for example, researchers are still trying to convince state officials that “the cost to society of not testing the kits is far greater than the expense the state would face in fully funding its crime lab.”
The report also suggests widespread and systemic ignorance from officials about the very nature of sexual crimes.
“Our culture for many, many years mischaracterized rape,” Gretchen Hunt, the executive director for the Office of Victim Advocacy with the Kentucky Attorney General’s Office, said in the report.
She argued that law enforcement officials have vastly underestimated the threat that offenders pose, particularly in cases where the victim likely knew the attacker.
“The reality, born out by the data, is that sexual assault is a violent crime, committed by an individual who is likely to be violent again,” the report concludes.
‘Tip of the Iceberg’
The reforms recommended by the FBI go beyond testing and prosecuting. The bureau said law enforcement officials need to be better trained in sexual assault response, how victims respond to trauma, and how to institute a victim-centered approach in every step of an investigation.
The report also notes that local and state officials should make better use of the FBI’s Violent Crime Apprehension Program, a database that can be helpful in identifying offenders whose names are not already known to law enforcement.
And though Racheal Lovell, one of the study’s leading researchers, said she’s optimistic that attitudes towards sexual assault are changing for the better, she cautioned much more needs to be done to meaningfully improve responses.
“One of the most frightening things is that although these data give us a much better picture, it’s just the tip of the iceberg,” she said. “Two thirds of victims don’t report, and our data suggest that only about half of those who report get a sexual assault kit.”
More on the Subject
Winning the Nobel peace prize is a significant victory for all women suffering from sexual violence, Yazidi campaigner Nadia Murad said in October in her first remarks after jointly winning the award.
“It means a lot, not just for me, for all of these women in Iraq and all the world,” she said in a phone interview with the Nobel prize website after sharing the prize with Congolese doctor Denis Mukwege for their work in fighting sexual violence in conflicts around the globe.