On December 21st, while most of us were getting ready for Christmas vacation, a Memphis lawyer was bringing a class action lawsuit against the city of Memphis for the Memphis Police Department's (MPD) failure to test DNA kits collected from victims of sexual assault. The plaintiff, identified as Jane Doe, was a victim who submitted a sexual assault evidence kit at the Rape Crisis Center in 2001, only to find out years later that it had never been tested.
The woman bringing the case against the city is only one of thousands of victims of sexual violence. The lawsuit accuses the city of neglecting to test 15,000 kits, some of which have spoiled in the time since they were collected. Even if the number of untested kits is less than that, we should be outraged that even one collected kit has gone unprocessed.
Rape kits serve a variety of purposes, including prosecuting rape. They can be used to identify unknown attackers and further implicate known rapists, back up the victim's story (and dispute the suspect's account of events), and absolve the innocent.
By not testing these kits — some of which date back to the 1980s — the MPD is showing us that it doesn't take sexual assault, and therefore, Memphis' female citizens, seriously.
According to the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN), only 40 of every 100 sexual assaults are reported. Of those, 10 will lead to an arrest, eight will be prosecuted, and only four will lead to a felony conviction. The reasons why the other 60 victims don't report their rapes is varied, but RAINN notes on its website that: "Many victims say that reporting is the last thing they want to do right after being attacked ... reporting can seem invasive, time consuming, and difficult."
That's what makes the backlog even more reprehensible. The victims who are brave enough to come forward and endure the hours-long process of having a kit taken aren't taken seriously.
Rape kit backlog isn't just a Memphis problem. According to Endthebacklog.org, there are hundreds of thousands of untested rape kits languishing in evidence store rooms all over the country. However, there are cities (much larger than Memphis) that have completely cleared their backlogs. Los Angeles has cleared its backlog, as has New York, which had more than 17,000 untested kits before they were all cleared in 2003. Endthebacklog.org reports that in New York, "city and law enforcement officials enacted a policy and developed a system to test every rape kit. The city's arrest rate for rape has since jumped from 40 percent to 70 percent."
And lest you think that this is only a problem that larger cities have the resources to solve, know that New Orleans has cleared its backlog. If New Orleans can do it, surely Memphis can too.
What happens after these kits are tested and we move on to a different day and crisis? Robert Spence Jr., the attorney who filed the lawsuit against the city, shares this concern. In an interview with the Commercial Appeal on December 21st, Spence said, "My clients do not trust that when the media scrutiny goes away that things won't go back to normal. We don't want future women who will suffer these crimes to suffer the same indignity."
In his executive order to the MPD in October 2013, Mayor Wharton ordered that the MPD put policies in place to process new rape kits and create metrics to measure the program's success. Additionally, the order requires the MPD to report monthly to the mayor and city council with updates on the program. This is a start, but more needs to be done to let Memphis' victims of sexual violence know that their attacks are being taken seriously.
The only way to redeem this abhorrent event is the city's guarantee that every sexual assault victim who comes forward is treated with respect and that every single rape kit collected in Memphis is processed.
So many great things are happening in Memphis. Why can't ensuring that victims of sexual violence get every bit of help and respect that the city has to offer be one of them?