Salt Lake City police identify 105 suspects after clearing 10-year rape kit backlog

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Hannah Bennett, a forensic scientist working in the biology section of the Department of Safety Forensic Services lab, processing evidence from a sexual assault collection kit, in Taylorsville on Tuesday May 7, 2019.

After revelations several years ago that thousands of rape kits were sitting untested in police custody across the state, the Salt Lake City Police Department said Tuesday that it’s made “dramatic changes” in the way officers respond to sexual assault cases.

The city’s entire backlog from a 10-year period — 768 kits — had been submitted and processed at the state crime lab as of last year, Chief Mike Brown told the Salt Lake City Council at an annual briefing on its progress. And more than 100 suspects were identified as part of those efforts.

“Our entire department’s culture has changed,” police said in a report submitted to the council ahead of the presentation. “We have made huge strides in creating a victim-centered approach to dealing with victims of all crimes. This has informed our training and decision-making.”

In 2014, the Salt Lake City Council initiated new policies for dealing with rape cases, with funding for the testing of all kits with usable DNA evidence by the state lab, for office training and for a forensic scientist whose job it is to accelerate processing.

Of the 768 kits, about 458 resulted in DNA positives and 301 of those were eligible to be entered into the FBI’s combined DNA index system. That resulted in the identification of 105 suspects, 42 of whom were not previously known to police.

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

To date, about 6% of those cases have resulted in charges, while one in four is still under investigation and 7% were found to be false reports or unfounded.

“We can’t go back and change the beginning,” Brown told the council during his half-hour briefing. “But we can start where we are and change the ending. And I just want to tell you, council, thank you, because we have changed the ending.”

The movement to test all DNA evidence gathered by specially trained nurses began after Julie Valentine, a nurse and faculty member at Brigham Young University, reported that Salt Lake City police had not analyzed 788 of 1,001 rape kits between 2003 and 2011.

But as council members considered policy shifts to address that backlog, they faced resistance from the police chief at the time, who argued that analyzing all the kits was not an efficient use of funds and department personnel.

“What a different experience this is to sit here with you and listen to your praise of the council,” Councilwoman Erin Mendenhall said Tuesday before thanking the department for undertaking “not only a procedural shift” but also a cultural one “to a truly victim-centered, trauma-informed approach.”

“And that’s as meaningful,” she added, “if not more meaningful.”

The Utah Legislature passed a law in 2017 requiring all rape kits to be tested at the state’s crime lab for DNA, creating a tracking system for kits that allows sexual assault survivors to enter a case number and see where theirs is and funding trauma-sensitivity training for police officers.

Councilwoman Amy Fowler, a defense attorney, wasn’t on the council in 2014 but praised her colleagues for pushing the issue forward and setting the example for departments across the state.

“Oftentimes, Salt Lake City is sort of the city that likes to push the envelope in a lot of different ways and I would say more often than not, that can be met with backlash from our Legislature, but in this case they copied us and three years later, this was a statewide initiative,” she said. “And I want to say thank you to my council members that went out on a limb and fought for doing the right thing in this situation.”

Across the state, more than 4,331 previously unprocessed rape kits have been submitted, and testing has been completed on 3,304 of them, according to Krystal Hazlett, program coordinator for the Sexual Assault Kit Initiative (SAKI).

The majority of the untested kits are in Salt Lake County, which also has the largest population in the state, she said. And while Salt Lake City had a bit of a head start, Hazlett praised its department’s “tremendous” efforts in processing kits.

“They were out front on this," she said, “but have stayed consistent and have always wanted to learn more and support SAKI.”

As the Salt Lake City Police Department celebrated the strides it has made on Tuesday, the report submitted to the City Council also demonstrates the challenges officers face as the number of sexual offenses reported and kits submitted to Salt Lake City police continues to grow.

In 2014, the department received 509 reports and 137 kits — by 2018, that number had risen to 841 reports and 210 kits. That increase is likely due to cultural shifts in the nation, department and community as a whole around rape and sexual assault after the #MeToo movement, Brown said.

“I honestly believe the culture and what we’ve done and the support that not only the council [has shown] but this entire community has come together, I think victims feel much more comfortable,” the chief said after the briefing.

The police department did not formally request any additional appropriations from the council for testing on Tuesday in light of those increases, noting that its initial funding has been adequate to address the backlog and implement new training. But moving forward, Brown said, the department plans to continue working with researchers to identify how it can better serve residents and see if there are areas in which it could improve.

“You have to continually strive to be better at it, and that’s our commitment to anybody,” he said. “If you’ve been sexually assaulted, we are going to give you the best investigation — from the very minute an officer shows up at your front doorstep to the time we take it to screening and, hopefully, prosecution.”

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