The Cost of Ignoring the Rape Kit Backlog in Memphis

By: Chase K. Encalade

In the U.S. 1 out of 5 women and 1 out of 33 men will be sexually assaulted in their lifetimes, yet only 3% of rapists’ country-wide will ever spend a day in jail for their crime. In a country where morality and justice supposedly ring true, how has rape gone so unpunished?

One reason is that law enforcement agencies country-wide, fail to give the same amount of attention to sexual assault cases that they give to other violations. It simply is not seen as a priority. Victims are often blamed for what took place, and focus is not fixed on the perpetrators, but on the victims themselves.

According to the U.S. Department of Justice - National Crime Victimization Survey, there are on average 293,066 victims of rape and sexual assault every year in the United States. Most of the time with rape and sexual assault, the only crime scene is a victim’s body. After the assault is reported, a victim must go through a painfully and invasive examination that includes photographing and swabbing her or his body for any DNA evidence that the offender may have left behind. This process can take up to six hours and can be mentally, and emotionally, draining for a victim. After all of the evidence is compiled, it is put in an evidence kit where it is protected. This collection of evidence is frequently called a rape kit.

DNA evidence collected after a sexual assault serves a vital purpose. It can be used to help find, and form a case against, the perpetrator. It also helps to connect the perpetrator to any other offenses and eliminate any innocent suspects. Likewise, the testing of rape kits let a victim know that her or his case is of absolute importance. But, in order for the evidence in the kits to actually be of any purpose, the evidence inside of it must be tested.

Kits that contain such powerful information have sat on shelves collecting dust all throughout the country. This has caused a backlog of untested kits that is estimated to be hundreds of thousands in number. Crime labs and law enforcement precincts all over the country have a substantial number of untested kits in their custody. Tennessee has at least 9,000 untested kits; 7,000 of those can be found in Memphis alone at the moment.

A decision had to be made, and law enforcement agencies country-wide decided that the violation of thousands of victims’ bodies were not important. In fact, crimes of sexual assault are treated so casually that very few states, and no Federal agencies, track this type of information. This makes it impossible even know how many of kits are left untested around the country. Two years ago, Memphis had the “largest known number of untested rape kits in the country” amounting to over 12,000. In the Fall of 2013, former Mayor A.C. Wharton issued an executive order that advised MPD to provide a plan that would effectively clear the backlog.

Thanks to the Debbie Smith Act of 2004, states with backlogs are allotted money by the federal government to clear their backlog. If the city wants to prove that it does care about the victims of sexual assault and rape, ending this backlog should be a priority. In September of 2015, Memphis was given $1,909,124 to begin processing its backlog, making it completely possible. If the city follows in the footsteps of other cities such as Fort Worth and Detroit, we could see hundreds of criminals indicted over the next few years; rapists who have been walking the streets who would finally be given the punishment they deserve.

Earlier this month Whitney Wood, a survivor of sexual assault, and Meghan Ybog spoke with News Channel 3, WREG Memphis about the lack of work being put into solving these rape cases. Wood and Ybog are co-founders of PERL (People for the Enforcement of Rape Laws). During the interview they expressed their thoughts on what law enforcement has missed, what they could do better, and how a change must be brought about if Memphis is to become a safe place.

“We do not have a backlog; we have police who have ignored this rape evidence.” says Ybog. “A backlog suggests that they’ve been put in a line and are waiting to be tested.” The women explained their speculations about a serial rapist in the city and the effect it's has on the city. Ybog continues, “Women are not safe in Memphis,” due to not only the worries of a serial rapist but the fact that we know of nothing being done to stop it. The media reports things before the police do, causing mistrust and the belief that cops are harboring secrets."

“Reporting rape to the Memphis police can be a horrible experience”. As a survivor, Wood knows first-hand how trivial the crime of rape is often treated. During the interview she talked of feeling as though she wasn’t being taken seriously during the reporting process, and felt blamed by law enforcement officials for any role she might have had to incite the violent act. Victim shaming isn’t even the largest part of the problem. If there are no consequences for raping someone, then there's nothing to hinder people from continuing to do it. The full interview can be found here.

There are a number of physical and emotional effects that a victim of sexual assault can experience; from PTSD and flashbacks, to broken bones and STI’s. Not only are people experiencing the physical trauma of the crimes committed against their bodies, but they must also live with lasting effects on their minds. It is unjust to men and women of this city that this problem even exists, and even worse that it has reached the extent that it did. Unless we want to see this happen again, sexual assault must be taken more seriously among law enforcement officials. The psychological damage that comes along with these offenses is enough torture for the victims. The load of wondering if someone is actually fighting for them to see justice is a burden they shouldn’t have to bear.

Chase K. Encalade is a Sophomore English for Corporate Communications major at Christian Brothers University and a staff writer at the Galleon.
Posted by Josh Colfer at 8:30 AM

The Galleon is curated and managed by Christian Brothers University, a Memphis-based university founded in the Lasallian tradition (a sect within the Catholic faith). Part of our founding mission is to uphold respect for all persons-regardless of political, religious, or social beliefs. As an institution, we take no stand on political matters; to do so would undermine our commitment to intellectual inquiry and thoughtful response to events taking place in our World by members of the CBU community.

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