In the Detroit Police Department, rape survivors were assumed to be prostitutes, and therefore to blame for their misfortune. Teenagers were thought to be lying, worried about the consequences of sex to which they consented. Cases were waved off as “not really a rape”—and the rape kits weren’t submitted for testing.
That’s according to a Justice Department-funded study released this year, which found that police in Detroit often held “negative, victim-blaming beliefs.” These attitudes are part of the reason the national backlog of sexual-assault kits, now estimated to be in the hundreds of thousands, came to be: Law-enforcement personnel decided which cases to test based on their own discretion.
The solution, advocates of sexual-assault prevention say, is more money.
Vice President Joe Biden, Attorney General Loretta Lynch, and Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance, Jr., on Thursday announced the recipients of $79 million in grant money from the federal government and the New York County District Attorney’s office to clear the backlog of rape kits.
“My hope is that because of this work ... more women are going to come forward,” Biden said at a press conference in New York. “We are not forgetting anybody. We are prepared to have their back. We are prepared to stand with them.”
While there are certainly other factors—discrepancies in tracking and reporting untested kits, along with a lack of police and crime lab resources, have compounded the backlog—police officers’ negative attitude toward victims is one of the toughest to combat. It’s hard to change an attitude prevailing in departments around the country.
In 2009, 11,000 untested rape kits were found in an abandoned storage unit in Detroit. Rebecca Campbell, one of the DOJ study’s authors, says that when police tested some of those kits, they found DNA matches to other sexual assault crimes, revealing serial rapists, or links to previously unsolved crimes. It had been a vicious cycle: Because all of the kits weren’t being tested, police weren’t seeing that the evidence invalidated their negative attitudes toward victims.
“It was a completely eye-opening experience for police to look at these kits and say, ‘I don’t think there’s any merit in this.’ And then they test it, and the proof is in the pudding,” Campbell says. “It starts to really change the lens and change the discussion about the utility of rape-kit testing.”
While there’s support inside police departments for ending the backlog, there isn’t an emphasis on attitudes toward victims. Terrence Cunningham, the incoming president of the International Association of Chiefs of Police, has made ending the rape-kit backlog a top priority. But the issue isn’t victim blaming, he says. It costs $1,000 to test a rape kit, and resources are spread thin. So police often give less priority to certain cases, such as when a victim doesn’t want to press charges.
“Some of these folks felt like it was investigative priorities,” Cunningham says. Though he doesn’t agree with that policy, he says he “can understand how some of the investigators got to the point where they said, ‘I’m not going to back up the lab. I’m not going to use lab resources to test that kit.’”
Part of the federal funding awarded Thursday will go toward training and education, which can focus in on the root of these attitudes. The training police get on how rape victims respond to trauma can be woefully inadequate, leading officers to misunderstand the behavior from victims in the immediate aftermath of a rape. Campbell says when she’s trained law enforcement personnel on how trauma affects victims, and what that might mean for how victims behave, react, and what they’re able to remember, “it starts to challenge them to look at their experiences in a very different light.”
Rebecca O’Connor, the vice president of public policy for the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network, says she doesn’t know if money itself will directly change attitudes.
But “the more attention that this gets at the highest levels and the more that people are putting their money where their mouths are and demonstrating that they’re making a monetary commitment to solutions,” she says, “the more people are forced to the table to have the difficult conversations about policies, whether they exist or not, what they should be, and what each player’s responsibility is in developing solutions.”
That training goes a long way. The easiest way to change attitudes, though, is to prove them wrong with cold, hard evidence. That only happens by testing every rape kit.
“Every rape kit represents a survivor,” says Sarah Haacke Byrd, the managing director of the Joyful Heart Foundation, an advocacy group working on this issue. “The mandatory testing of rape kits sends a message to survivors that they and their cases matter.” And that only happens with more funding.
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