WICHITA (TNS) — In what Wichita Police Chief Gordon Ramsay described as an effort to right a wrong, he has committed to forensic lab testing of all sexual assault kits collected as evidence, including a backlog of nearly 1,700 kits that had piled up in storage.
"This effort has righted a wrong," Ramsay said at a news conference Friday. "While our intended past practices were just that, we operated with good intent, we look back and we realize that it was not the best practice."
The department has already started the process of testing the backlog, at the recommendation of the Kansas Bureau of Investigation.
Kansas law enforcement agencies didn't send at least 2,200 sexual assault kits for testing that could have helped identify and convict rapists, an ongoing Kansas Bureau of Investigation study found. The majority of those kits were held in the Wichita area.
Between 2002 and 2015, Wichita police had 1,069 sexual assault kits that weren't tested. Between 2015 and Friday, about 600 more unsubmitted kits built up, Ramsay said.
All of those kits will be submitted by the end of the year, and all kits collected in the future will "be tested continually," Ramsay said. At least two cases have been reopened since they've started testing the backlogged kits in the spring of last year.
In rape cases, a woman's body often becomes one of the strongest pieces of evidence. Police recommend women get a test done as soon as possible after a rape, to make sure the evidence is not washed off. Rape victims are generally asked to remove their clothing and allow trained nurses to swab for DNA and take photos of their naked bodies that could show injuries. The kits are collected by forensic nurses and turned over to law enforcement as evidence.
The KBI study found, however, that instead of sending the kits to a crime laboratory for forensic analysis, Kansas law enforcement agencies left the kits in storage rooms for years.
When the study was made public in the spring of 2017, it did not include a county-by-county breakdown of the unsubmitted tests. In response to a request from the Wichita Eagle, the KBI made that information public for the first time.
After Sedgwick County, the county with the next-largest number of unsubmitted rape kits was Riley County, which had 159 unsubmitted kits.
In April, the Kansas Bureau of Investigation recommended that all law enforcement agencies test all of the kits, according to a statement from Director Kirk Thompson. A U.S. Department of Justice-funded study, the Sexual Assault Kit Initiative, led Kansas to become the first state in the country to voluntarily provide an inventory of all its unsubmitted kits.
In the past, law enforcement would use a "matrix" to decide what tests would be sent to a lab for testing. If it was a "he said, she said" situation, where both the woman reporting the rape and the man accused of it said there was sexual contact, police typically would not send the kits in for testing, Ramsay said.
"Now, we know the best practice is to test all kits, because often, nationally, other factors have been found where testing these kits, getting them in the national database, leads to other findings," Ramsay said.
"While DNA evidence may not always contribute to resolving the immediate case, testing all SAKs (Sexual Assault Kits) ensures we are better able to link cases together and hold offenders accountable for their actions," Thompson said in a letter sent to police leaders across the state in April.
The KBI study, which is still ongoing and funded by a $2 million federal grant, identified four factors contributing to the stockpile of unsubmitted, and therefore untested, rape kits: a lack of training, a lack of resources, a lack of policy and a lack of societal awareness.
"Really, this issue is about changing the culture around our response to sexual assault and sexual violence, and it is a true example of when our leaders from criminal justice agencies and our advocacy agencies come together, that we can make improvements and ultimately improve our response to victims," Ramsay said.
An early survey of 427 of the unsubmitted kits from 12 agencies, not including Wichita or Sedgwick County, looked at the specific reasons the tests stayed in storage — and who made the decision not to submit. More often than not — 62 percent of the time — the person who decided not to submit a kit for testing was a detective working the case.
As part of the survey, the agencies were asked why they did not submit the rape kits for testing. In more than a quarter of the cases, it was because the victim was uncooperative, the study shows. In about one in five instances, the prosecution was declined.
In the survey, five Kansas counties had 100 or more unsubmitted tests. Sedgwick, with 1,247; Riley, with 159; Johnson, with 140; Reno, with 104; and Saline, with 100.
Katie Whisman, director of the Sexual Assault Kit Initiative and an executive officer at the KBI, said the study is not geared toward "pointing fingers or assigning blame" and the reasons for the backlog of sexual assault evidence are "multi-faceted, complex and inter-related; they do not belong to any one stakeholder group."
"No one is proud of the fact that unsubmitted sexual assault evidence accumulated for decades in law enforcement property rooms," Whisman said.
Whisman said all parties involved want to "do the right thing," but doing so will require "in-depth stakeholder collaboration."