FORT MYERS, Fla. – For the last eight months, Call for Action investigators have been asking local law enforcement agencies how many untested sexual assault kits, or rape kits, they have in their possession.
Two months ago, Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi spoke out about the backlog of rape kits sitting untested at law enforcement agencies across the state. She said she wanted all rape kits to be tested. At WINK News, we had started asking questions about untested kits months before, but it was not until her push, that we started to get some answers.
First Attempt for answers
On Feb. 25, Call for Action reporter Lindsey Sablan sent the same email to seven local law enforcement agencies, asking questions about how each agency handles sexual assault cases:
I’d like to request the number of rape kits collected each year for the last five years. (2010 to date).
I’d also like to request the number of rape kits that were tested each year for the last five years. (2010 to date).
In addition, I have some questions.
1. Where are rape kits stored in your department?
2. How long can they be stored there?
3. If you have the kits tested, where do you send them?
4. Does it cost your department any money to test the kits?
5. How long does it take for a kit to be tested?
6. How do you determine if a kit should be tested?
These sexual assault kits contain any kind of bodily tissue that is collected from a victim after a sexual assault happens. The evidence is then uploaded to a national database called CODIS (Combined DNA Index System), which is constantly searching DNA samples looking for matches. Therefore, if a suspect is unknown at the time of the crime but pops into the system later, it will alert law enforcement. For all Southwest Florida agencies, the kits are sent to Florida Department of Law Enforcement for testing.
All agencies but two, the Fort Myers Police Department and the Lee County Sheriff’s Office, were able to provide us with the number of kits collected and sent to FDLE for testing.
Why kits are not tracked
When we asked why these kits were not tracked, the Lee County Sheriff’s Office sent us this answer on March 9:
[Sheriff’s Office Public Information Officer] have contacted both our SVU detectives and our Crime Scene and Evidence Section. Both have stated that they do not keep these statistics. Pulling all of the cases individually to find out the numbers would require significant time and expense.
We were quoted a cost of $7,280 for the Lee County Sheriff’s Office to pull those records. In the meantime, we reached out to other counties and police departments outside our viewing area to see if they kept track of sexual assault kits collected and tested.
A story of policy change
“These are obviously very, very personal crimes, very traumatic for the victims, so you want to ensure you’re doing everything possible to assist them,” said Jaime Hernandez with the Hollywood Police Department.
In 2013, Hollywood Police Department’s Chief ordered an independent audit of how many rape kits were sitting untested in their department. They found 94 kits had been neglected, including cases dating back to 2005.
“As part of that, discovery was made that procedures needed to be improved to prevent that from happening,” said Hernandez.
After that audit, the Hollywood Police Department changed its policy about how it determines if a kit is sent for testing.
In 2003, Collier County also changed its policy and decided to send all rape kits in for testing.
Recent numbers released
Last week, FDLE released numbers from law enforcement agencies across the state showing just how many kits have not been turned over for testing. The Fort Myers Police Department reported it had 25 untested kits that should be submitted. The Lee County Sheriff’s Office reported having 498 kits that needed to be submitted for testing. Again, we reached out to the Lee County Sheriff’s Office to find out why so many kits were untested and we did not receive an answer.
The Fort Myers Police Department sent us this statement:
In October of 2015, the Fort Myers Police Department participated in a Florida Department of Law Enforcement’s Sexual Assault Kit Survey, along with other law enforcement agencies in Florida. FDLE initiated the survey in order to ascertain the number of untested sexual assault kits stored in the evidence vaults of law enforcement agencies throughout Florida. The survey results will help FDLE plan for future funding needs regarding the processing of any backlog of sexual assault kits.
In preparation for completing the survey, the Fort Myers Police Department’s Evidence Supervisor, conducted an inventory of the sexual assault kits within our evidence vault. The inventory revealed the following information for the survey questions:
- Please indicate how many sexual assault kits have not been submitted for analysis
(Note: The Fort Myers Police Department has 92 sexual assault kits that have not been submitted for analysis. However, 25 of these kits do not meet FDLE’s requirements for submission, because they were from “Non-reporting” victims – meaning that the victims in these cases did not want to file a police report or pursue criminal charges. This leaves 67 sexual assault kits that may or may not need to be submitted for processing. In researching these cases, the Evidence Supervisor determined that 25 of these cases required additional research to determine whether or not they should be submitted for analysis. The remaining 42 kits were not submitted to FDLE for analysis for a number of reasons, to include: (1) Victim no longer wants the investigation to proceed, (2) Case is not being pursued by the State Attorney’s Office, (3) Suspect has pled guilty/ no contest, (4) Kit collected during death investigation where no sexual assault occurred, and (5) The suspect and the victim were involved in a domestic partnership where the identity of the suspect is not in question.
- Of the total number of kits which have not been submitted, please indicate the number of kits that should be submitted.
(Note: After completing the inventory of the kits and researching the cases involved, the Evidence Supervisor determined that 25 of the kits are from cases in which further research needs to be conducted to determine whether or not the sexual assault kits needs to be sent in for analysis. Again the purpose of FDLE survey was to identify the number of kits that may require analysis so they can determine their funding requirements.
How many kits in your property room are from non-reporting victims?
(Note: These kits were not submitted for analysis because the victims did not file a police report and did not want law enforcement involvement. In these cases, FDLE policy denotes that the kits are not analyzed. The evidence is collected and stored just in case the victim later decides to pursue the case.
“The Fort Myers Police Department will continue to work in collaboration with the Florida Department of Law enforcement regarding the processing of sexual assault evidence. We will continue to research the cases involving any of the kits that have yet to be submitted for analysis to determine the investigative value of a future examination.”
Refusing to talk to our Reporter
Tuesday, the Lee County Sheriff’s Office said it would explain to WINK News why they have 498 untested kits, but then refused to talk to reporter Lindsey Sablan. However, they did talk to the News-Press which told us that the Sheriff’s Office said the 498 kits is not considered a backlog, but rather kits that do not have to go to FDLE. They told the News-Press the oldest kit they have dates back to 1984. Some of the examples they gave for why a kit would not go to FDLE is if it is for a murder case, a capital sex crime or if a victim decides not to prosecute. However, this policy varies for each agency.
Kit testing criteria
Each agency decides what kit is sent to FDLE for testing. For example, since 2003 Collier County has sent every kit to FDLE, even if a victim changes their mind and does not want to prosecute. This way, it ensures a suspect’s DNA is uploaded to the national database.
The Lee County Sheriff’s Office would not tell us if they will change their policy, but they did tell the News-Press they would send all 498 kits to FDLE, in batches of five.