Salt Lake police present plan to improve processing of rape kits

Published: Wednesday, April 16 2014 6:15 p.m. MDT

SALT LAKE CITY — Beginning June 1, the public will be able to see the progress of rape kit processing in Salt Lake City as part of an effort to improve transparency and make systemic improvements.

Representatives from the Salt Lake City Police Department, state crime lab and Salt Lake County District Attorney's Office presented the plan and their commitment to improve the process at a news conference Wednesday.

Efforts to address the backlog of 625 unprocessed rape kits in the Salt Lake City area have been in the works for several months. The announcement of the plan wasn't simply a response to the heated Salt Lake City Council meeting on Tuesday, said Salt Lake Police Chief Chris Burbank.

However, Burbank did take the opportunity to insist that City Councilman Kyle LaMalfa "misrepresented" professionals' lack of dedication, and he refuted the idea that people aren't doing their jobs.

"The commitment here is not to respond to and prove anyone wrong (but) … to evaluate the process by which we provide services to the victims in Salt Lake City of rape and to make sure that everywhere along the process that we are doing the right thing," Burbank said. "And we hope that it identifies areas that we can improve and do a better job."

Advocacy groups for sexual trauma victims met with the council and the police department Tuesday to discuss a backlog of hundreds of cases of unprocessed evidence in sexual crimes that have accumulated since 2004.

Known as rape kits, or Code R kits, each case contains evidence collected in the investigation of a sexual assault. Some kits go on to be processed for DNA and evidentiary purposes at the state crime lab.

Generic information about each rape kit will now be available on the police department's website. No names or specific information will be used, and each case will receive a new case number, starting with the oldest kit in the department's evidence room, Burbank said.

Information will be posted about whether the kit is sent to the lab, what the lab results are (what databases have been searched), whether it goes to the district attorney's office and then what the conclusion is.

The chief said the "open and accessible process" will "demonstrate what we go through in order to actually solve some of these cases and to ensure that a victim does receive justice."

Salt Lake police, the district attorney's office and the Utah Department of Public Safety are collaborating, and each agency is dedicating a "huge amount of resources," Burbank said.

"Their commitment to addressing the backlog of kits not yet processed is positive, and one we hope will be mirrored in every city and every county across Utah," said House Democratic Leader Jennifer Seelig, D-Salt Lake, who sponsored a bill earlier this year to strengthen rape victims' rights.

Gov. Gary Herbert signed HB157, which requires investigators to inform victims whether their rape kits are processed.

Burbank said it isn't a blame game, but the transparency will open the process up to public scrutiny and reveal weaknesses in the system. He said the agencies are taking a "tremendous risk" but are willing to be accountable. He called it the right thing to do and committed to make changes as they find room for improvement.

"We want to create a process that is transparent, that also focuses on system improvement, that recognizes this an opportunity for us … as law enforcement and the community at large to look at areas that we can improve upon," District Attorney Sim Gill said.

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