Audits of state’s untested rape kits unlikely to be completed by deadline

The number of untested kits in Oklahoma is unknown, and there are no laws that require law enforcement to retain all rape kits or to test them and compare the DNA to databases.

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The number of untested rape kits in Oklahoma is unknown. NewsOn6

An audit to determine the number of untested rape kits in police departments across the state likely will not be completed by the rapidly approaching deadline.

Gov. Mary Fallin signed an executive order in April creating a 17-member task force to determine the number of untested DNA collection kits in more than 300 law enforcement agencies across Oklahoma.

The executive order states the audit must be completed by Dec. 30.

Lesley Smith March oversees the state’s Attorney General’s Office of Victim Service Unit, as well as the Oklahoma Task Force on Sexual Assault Forensic Evidence. She said the deadline will likely be extended.

Michael McNutt, a spokesman for Fallin, said the governor has not yet received a request for an extension, but Fallin would consider it if one was made.

The number of untested kits in Oklahoma is unknown, and there are no laws that require law enforcement to retain all rape kits or to test them and compare the DNA to databases.

Law enforcement agencies have been slow to respond to the executive order, March said, but they are gaining momentum. There is confusion among smaller agencies on what information they need to provide, she said.

Several agencies have said they do not have any untested kits and have not submitted anything to the task force, March said. Small departments that claim to not have used any rape kits might not have turned in an audit.

Some agencies also have struggled with the manpower needed to count the untested kits, March said.

Sgt. Jillian Phippen, who heads the Tulsa Police Department sex crimes unit, said the agency will not make the deadline.

“It’s a long road for us for a lot of different reasons, so we have not yet completed ours,” she said.

The Tulsa Police Department does not have a backlog of current rape kits waiting to be tested.

However, the agency has thousands of kits going back to the mid-80s, and it’s unknown how many are untested, Phippen said. The department typically does not throw out any of its rape kits.

The process to check the status of the kits is lengthy, Phippen said. The five detectives on her unit are taking a couple of hours each week to try to complete the audit, she said.

“It (the audit) is very important to us,” Phippen said. “It’s just when you are literally working at bare minimum, there are no other resources to provide to something extra.”

Tulsa’s police department applied for a federal grant this year to aid with the auditing and testing process, but did not receive the funding. The agency will reapply next year, Phippen said.

Phippen, who is a member of the task force, said the department has audited a couple of years worth of kits and aims to have a sampling of data for the task force sometime next month.

Oklahoma City Police Department spokeswoman Megan Morgan said the department completed its audit and found 1,593 untested kits in its custody.

Agencies generally do not test kits if the victim is uncooperative or they believe they know who the alleged offender is. Rape kits are often left to gather dust in evidence rooms or are destroyed.

In recent years, there has been a nationwide effort to determine the number of untested rape kits and test them. Researchers and advocates say testing old kits can catch serial rapists.

In 2016, Tulsa’s police department investigated 389 sex crimes that resulted in 254 rape kits. Only 71 were tested. In Oklahoma City, 490 rapes and sexual assaults were investigated last year. Out of 295 rape kits, only 99 were tested.

Though the order doesn’t mandate the testing of kits, part of the task force’s duties is to find funding for testing and try to improve the process for victims of sexual assault.

The average cost to test a kit is $1,000 to $1,500. The state, facing a severe budget crisis, has no money to test kits that could be decades old, but can apply for federal testing grants.

Phil Cotton, the Oklahoma Association of Chiefs of Police representative on the task force, said he is unsure what type of results will be seen from the audits. To encourage agencies to respond, the task force sent out several reminders, he said.

“It’s an important process and important for us to do this,” Cotton said.

Despite the drawbacks in the process, agencies have been diligent in asking questions of what is required to try to complete the audits, March said.

The task force is supposed to present its findings and recommendations to the governor, president pro tempore of the Senate and the speaker of the House by July 1, 2018.

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Kassie McClung

Staff writer

Kassie McClung reports on health, criminal justice and other state issues. Contact: Kassie@readfrontier.com or 918-935-1044.
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