Reporting a sexual assault can be nearly as traumatic as the event itself.
Victims are advised to seek immediate medical help. They spend hours after the assault at the hospital, completing an invasive medical examination and a sexual assault kit (commonly known as a rape kit). The rape kit is sent to police.
Earlier this year, Oregon State Police asked every local police department to count the number of sexual assault kits being held in police evidence rooms.
What they found is shocking: more than 5,000 sexual assault kits were never sent to a lab for testing.
The Portland Police Bureau holds almost half of those kits. Washington County, Gresham and Salem police departments all have hundreds of untested kits.
Even when rape kits do get sent to the Oregon Crime Lab, there’s a huge backlog.
More than 1,150 DNA samples, from both violent crimes and property offenses, are already at the lab, waiting to be processed by the state’s forensic scientists. Oregon State Police Superintendent Richard Evans, Jr. says the state crime lab in Clackamas is already working at capacity.
How did the rape kit backlog happen?
Quite simply, there are very few laws or rules about when or how rape kits should be tested.
In most police departments, it’s up to the sexual assault detective or police officers. They can decide to send a rape kit to the lab for processing—or they can let it sit in the evidence room indefinitely.
An officer might not send the kit to the lab if a sexual assault suspect has already been identified and confessed. The victim might decide against pressing charges. The prosecutor might not think the lab results necessary for a criminal case.
Or the officer just doesn’t believe the victim.
Sometimes we let our personal opinions get in the way, ” –Salem Deputy Police Chief Steve Bellshaw at Oregon Senate hearing
And if that discretion given to individual police officers is troubling, then the utter failure of basic investigation is truly disturbing.
Because most rapists are repeat offenders.
Studies have shown that rape is rarely an isolated incident. More than half of rapists have multiple victims: on average, 5.8 victims per rapist.
When a rape kit isn’t tested, the DNA evidence doesn’t get entered into the Combined DNA Index System (CODIS).
If Oregon had tested even half of the 5,000 rape kits, thousands of potential attackers would have been entered into CODIS.
How many sexual assaults might have been prevented?
Even in cases where the rapist was already identified, or confessed, entering the DNA evidence in the database might have solved a previous crime.
I probably in 1993 should have sent those kits in to be tested (even if a suspect confessed) because my kit could have solved an unknown kit in another jurisdiction.” – Salem Deputy Police Chief Bellshaw
Yet, Oregon has failed to make rape kit testing a priority.
How can Oregon solve this problem?
Funding is the biggest issue most jurisdictions face in breaking through the rape kit backlog. Oregon, and specifically Portland, will likely need more resources to test 5,000 sexual assault kits.
Oregon state legislature approved funding for adding two more forensic scientists at the state lab to help address the backlog. Police, prosecutors, and victim advocates are forming a work group to establish a model policy for getting the rape kits tested, and notifying victims of DNA matches.
While the Oregon State police voluntarily started a count of untested kits, there is no legislation to force them to do so, and no provisions for future rape kit testing.
Progress is being made— but the plans are vague, and no deadlines have been set.
This is cold comfort for survivors whose sexual assaults might have been prevented. But perhaps it’s the start of changes we need to break the cycle—and give rape survivors the justice they deserve.