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Editorial: Transparency builds trust in rape-kit process

Published April 18, 2014 11:24 am

Transparency will build trust
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2014, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

A heated exchange involving Salt Lake City's police chief and a member of the City Council has prompted quick action from Police Chief Chris Burbank, and the Salt Lake County Attorney's Office that could bring more rapists to justice.

While Burbank took umbrage with criticism from Councilman Kyle LaMalfa about the lack of evaluations of hundreds of rape evidence "kits," he also rightly took the criticism to heart. His plan for more transparency should mean better communication among law enforcement agencies and quicker evaluation of evidence.

The lack of rape convictions is serious.

Studies show that only about 12 percent of rapes are ever reported and the number of those that are eventually prosecuted is only 6 percent in Salt Lake County.

An advocate for rape victims told the City Council that, in many cases of reported sexual assault, forensic evidence gathered from the victim – including DNA from semen and saliva ­- is never analyzed.

That evidence, collected from victims by specially trained nurses, is called a Code R kit, or rape kit.

The kits must be analyzed at the state crime lab to help prosecutors decide whether to pursue a case. But of 1,001 sexual assault investigations from 2003 to 2011, the Salt Lake City Police Department has not forwarded 788 — nearly 79 percent — of rape kits for processing at the crime lab.

Burbank said the startling statistic can often be explained by weaknesses in cases. Sometimes the alleged victim or other witnesses may not be reliable, he said. And he blamed the state lab for failing to be a "good partner" in the process.

Nevertheless, the figure of only 20 percent of rape kits being processed is alarming. Women who are attacked – and statistics show one in eight Utah women will be raped, higher than the national average – may be hesitant to report a rape when their attackers will probably not be caught. And the number of convictions is not much of a deterrent.

Burbank's plan to make the process more transparent so city officials and the public can determine whether police, the state crime lab or the county district attorney's office is to blame – or whether other problems with the case make conviction unlikely – is a good start. He said he will post online information on 625 of the cases, protecting the identity of victims.

County District Attorney Sim Gill proposes better teamwork among investigators, forensic specialists and prosecutors, so decisions on prosecution are made collectively.

Bringing this serious problem to light could result in justice for more rape victims. That should be the goal of everyone in law enforcement.