Crime

Birmingham Police Face Biggest Backlog in Sexual Assault Kits Not Submitted for Analysis

The Wounded Heart Project, which is a number of heart-centered art displays, at the Crisis Center, The project is aimed at giving survivors of sexual violence a means to express what’s in their hearts. Supporters of the center also created some of the artwork. (Source: Solomon Crenshaw Jr.)

Rhiannon Reese of Crisis Center Birmingham says she doesn’t want to play the blame game about sexual assault kits not submitted for analysis to Alabama’s forensic lab.

The clinical director and rape response coordinator of Crisis Center Birmingham was reacting to an inventory that shows that the Birmingham Police Department handled about 87 percent of the sexual assault kits provided by Jefferson County women since 1985 but not passed on for forensic analysis. The inventory was conducted by the Sexual Assault Kit Initiative of the Jefferson County District Attorney’s Office.

“I don’t want to say, ‘Well, this is so and so’s fault,’” Reese said. “I know that the people that are doing the investigations right now are not the people that were there, like in the ’80s and ’90s, or even the early 2000s. They weren’t the ones who let this happen.”

The Sexual Assault Kit Initiative points a questioning finger at the Birmingham Police Department.

An inventory of 3,944 sexual assault kits provided to Birmingham police found that 3,391 were not submitted for testing. That’s nearly 86 percent of the kits provided to Birmingham police found in that inventory.

The inventory of rape kits for all the law enforcement jurisdictions in Jefferson County found 3,876 of 4,999 were not submitted to be analyzed by the forensics agency.

In a statement, Birmingham Police Chief Patrick Smith said a process is now in place to prevent future backlogs, adding that his department has no backlog of sexual assault kits for 2018.

“For the backlog identified from the 1980s to 2016, we are currently working with the Sexual Assault Kit Initiative and the district attorney’s office to ensure justice for the survivors,” Smith said. “There is no one answer as to how the backlog developed. This was a 30-year backlog in the making. There have been changes in process, collection and comparison of evidence throughout that period of time. If systems were in place to handle the backlog right now, we would deliver all of the kits today.

“We are actively working with SAKI and the state to establish those systems,” Smith said.

Reese said there has not been an overwhelming response to the reports that surfaced last week. Some victims and survivors haven’t yet heard the reports while others may presume their kits are not in the unanalyzed total.

That’s a hopeful stance that’s not backed up by the numbers. The odds are more likely that a kit went unsubmitted, and thus untested.

Reese said the client of a coworker contacted the Crisis Center and learned that her kit indeed was not tested. Survivors who have called in have felt confusion.

“They don’t understand why they (the kits) weren’t tested,” she said. “They don’t understand what would have made it so that they couldn’t move forward.”

Rhiannon Reese is clinical director and rape response coordinator of Crisis Center Birmingham (Source: Solomon Crenshaw Jr.)

Crisis Center staffers have acknowledged other feelings – helplessness, anger and sadness.

“It felt like in recent years that things have gotten better,” Reese said. “To know that things had not necessarily gotten better, it was really disappointing.”

The rape response coordinator said the Crisis Center has had a good relationship with law enforcement in recent years.

“I can say that the people who are in law enforcement right now – the detectives, the people that are in charge – are not the people that let this happen,” Reese said. “But there are people that are going to have to clean up and pick up the pieces. I know that a lot of the people that we work with right now, as far as law enforcement is concerned, that they do care, they are interested in seeing cases forward. And they put forth a lot of effort into making that happen.”

Reese said she didn’t know for sure why there were so many unsubmitted kits, but she has some ideas.

“My understanding is the reason that kits don’t get submitted are either that the person dropped the case or the victim has said I don’t want to move forward with this,” she said. “At that point, there would be no reason to test the kit.”

The inability to contact the victim is another potential reason for some not being submitted, she said, adding that questions about consent can affect whether a case moves forward.

As word of the unsubmitted kits broke last week, some wondered if proof of a serial rapist was sitting in an evidence storage compartment somewhere. Reese cautioned that “serial rapists” aren’t the “crazy person that’s hiding in the bushes.”

“Most serial rapists are acquaintances of people,” she said. “They are people who look just like you and me. Unfortunately, this idea of getting the boogeyman off the street is not a real one. Most perpetrators know the person they assault. They’re usually somebody that’s trusted or well respected.”

The rape response coordinator said safe guards are being installed to prevent another backlog from forming. This goes beyond the initiative that’s paying for the backlog of kits to be tested.

“We have the Sexual Assault Justice Initiative,” she said.  “Their job is to make sure this doesn’t happen again. They’re going to make sure that there’s not a backlog ever again. They’re working with the DA’s office, the different police jurisdictions, the Crisis Center, Children’s Hospital and their CHIPS program.

“They have case review to make sure that when somebody has done investigating that they have done everything that they needed to do before dropping the case or moving forward so there are maybe a couple more checks and balances in place. There’s a little bit more accountability.”

The situation won’t have a quick fix.

“Things are not going to get better overnight because this problem didn’t start overnight,” Reese said. “I think that we’re putting a system in place that will benefit survivors and I think will help get the serial rapists off the street. It will help survivors feel like they have justice.”

The FBI estimates that for every person who reports a sexual assault, 10 don’t. Since Crisis Center sees about 30 people per month, that estimate means there are 300 victims who don’t step forward.

Could the unsubmitted assault kits sway more victims to stay away?

“That’s a good question,” Reese said. “I think the issue that we’re having now is people are losing faith in the entire system, not necessarily the police but everybody. That’s not a great feeling.”