by Toby Sells
In September, Memphis Police Department director Toney Armstrong told the Memphis City Council that his department had discovered 12,164 untested rape kits. The kits are collections of pieces of evidence gathered after a person reports that they have been sexually assaulted.
MPD has used state and local funds to send off 2,226 of these kits for testing so far. Of those, officials said Wednesday that about 61 percent have yielded evidence that can be further tested and, perhaps, be used in the pursuit and prosecution of suspected perpetrators.
Memphis Mayor A C Wharton has appointed Veronica Coleman-Davis, former U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Tennessee, to spearhead an investigation of the untested kits. She will review how the backlog came to be and will make recommendations to the mayor to prevent a future backlog. Coleman-Davis said she’ll begin by looking at the physical locations where the kits are now stored and will have talks with Memphis police officials.
“Based on the meetings I’ve attended, it’s clear the (MPD director Armstrong) and his department have initiated some changes and they know there is still a long way to go,” Coleman-Davis said.
Wharton also called upon the national Joyful Heart Foundation to provide expert assistance as the city works through the backlog. The Foundation is focused on sexual assault issues and has helped other cities like Detroit to work on their backlogs of untested rape kits.
Sarah Tofte, vice president of police and advocacy for the Joyful Heart Foundation, said Memphis has the largest known backlog of untested rape kits in the country. She qualified that by saying there’s likely another city with a larger backlog that hasn’t yet reported the problem.
“The fact is, Memphis also has an unprecedented commitment to addressing this issue and acknowledging it and moving forward as a community,” Tofte said. “I have never seen a city respond in such an aggressive manner to the problem (of untested rape kits).’
Wharton said he has asked state officials for $2 million in this year’s budget to help the city test the kits. Council member Myron Lowery said the city council will vote to assign $1 million more to the project next week. As for the rest of the $5.5 million total needed, Wharton repeated the phrase, “we’ll find the money,” during a news conference Monday morning.
Wharton said the kits represent victims whose sense of safety and security have been “irreparably shattered,” their families and friends, and a community that demands justice. Testing the kits will help restore confidence in the justice system for these victims, he said. Also, sexual assault is an issue that touches every part of the city, he said.
“This happens to boys and girls and rich folks, straight folks and gay folks,” Wharton said. “It happens to little black and white girls trying to get to school. We cannot divide on this one. It’s not just South Memphis, East Memphis, or Midtown.”
Coleman-Davis has free reign on her investigation of the issue. Wharton said he won’t direct her to find culpability on the issue but if a guilty party is found, “they will be dealt with,” he said.