For several years, a group of lawmakers, victim advocates and law enforcement have been driving an effort to reform how Oklahoma responds to reports of sexual assault, pushing for some untested rape kits to be processed and agencies to more efficiently interact with victims.
The $1 million in earmarked funds accompany several bills signed into law this session that aim to improve and streamline the process of testing and maintaining kits, as well as how law enforcement members are trained to respond to calls of sexual assault.
Sexual assault forensic exams, also called rape kit exams, can preserve DNA evidence from a sexual assault and provides victims with important medical care, such as sexually transmitted infection prevention medication. The exam, often performed by a specially trained nurse, can take several hours and can increase the likelihood of the perpetrator being prosecuted.
When victims go to a hospital, the exam is free and they are not required to file a police report.
For several years Oklahoma leaders have grappled with how to best quantify, catalog and process the state’s untested kits. Former Gov. Mary Fallin in 2017 signed an executive order creating a 17-member task force to determine the number of untested DNA collection kits in more than 300 law enforcement agencies across Oklahoma.
Fallin’s audit found more than 7,200 untested rape kits in the state. There are several reasons a kit might go untested, the audit found, with the top reason being a lack of victim cooperation. Other explanations for why kits weren’t processed include cases where the district attorney or victim declined to pursue charges.
Each rape kit costs between $1,000 and $1,500 for a crime lab to analyze. Lab analysts work to extract any DNA from swabs or stains collected as part of the kit, then analyze it and make a report.
The $1 million is designated to go to the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation, said Andrea Fielding, director of criminalistics with the OSBI. A portion of those funds will be used to hire five forensic biologists who will do DNA testing, and another chunk of the money will go toward buying instruments to process the kits, she said.
Of the roughly 7,200 untested kits in the state, about 3,000 belong to the Tulsa Police Department and about 1,600 are in the Oklahoma City Police Department’s custody, both of which have their own labs.
The remaining 2,200 untested kits will be processed by the OSBI. The process to test the backlog of the agency’s kits is expected to take three to four years, Fielding said.
It is unclear how many kits OSBI will be able to process with the $1 million, Fielding said, but the agency has partnered with the state attorney general’s office to apply for a federal grant in an effort to secure additional funds.
Bills addressing rape kits, sexual assault signed into lawUntil recently, Oklahoma had no laws that mandated law enforcement agencies keep rape kits in their possession for a certain amount of time or that required agencies to send the kits to a crime lab for processing in a timely manner. Some lawmakers and advocates have argued there is also a need for a uniform statewide standard for how law enforcement officers are trained to respond to reports of sexual assault.
Kathy Bell is the forensic nursing administrator with the Tulsa Police Department and has been a Sexual Assault Nurse Examiners (SANE) nurse in Oklahoma for about 25 years. She is also a member of the task force leading the effort to reform how Oklahoma agencies handle rape kits and reports of sexual assault.
She said successful rape kit reform must involve education, support and communication between agencies.
“Some of the smaller agencies may not be as educated or supported in the way with education that we see the same type of results and changes that we’ve seen in the better educated and more educated communities,” Bell said. “I really think it is an education issue.”
Over her more than two decades as a SANE nurse, Bell has seen attitudes toward reports of sexual assault shift in the state.
“Some places just changed faster, more than others,” she said. “Yes, I’ve seen it change a lot.”
Several bills that aim to address those areas based on the task force’s recommendations were signed into law this legislative session.
Sen. Kay Floyd, D-Oklahoma City, is a member of the of the task force. She filed three bills this session that were all recently signed into law.
Senate Bill 975, authored by Floyd and Rep. Jon Echols, R-Oklahoma City, requires law enforcement agencies to send rape kits to a crime lab within 20 days of receiving the evidence if the victim or their guardian requests it.
The kit will not be tested if a victim does not report the attack to law enforcement or if the victim requests the evidence not be processed.
The bill also:
- Requires all law enforcement agencies to adopt the same type of rape kit;
- Directs medical professionals and law enforcement to tell the victim the purpose of the kit and their right to have it tested; and
- Requires agencies to keep kits for not less than 50 years or for the length of the statute of limitations for the alleged crime — whichever is longer.
The bill, which went into effect immediately, would also require the OSBI and other forensic labs — in partnership with the task force — to implement a priority protocol for the processing of the state’s untested kits, which would include considerations such as:
- Whether the statute of limitations has passed;
- Whether the offender is a stranger to the victim; and
- A process to ID cases where the victim was or is participating in the criminal justice process and has consented to the testing of the kit.
As for the untested kits identified in the statewide audit, kits would not be tested when the victim has not reported to law enforcement, if the victim requested the kit to not be tested, or when the perpetrator has been convicted and his or her DNA is already in a federal database.
Floyd’s Senate Bill 967, which was signed into law in April, directs the OSBI to implement a statewide electronic tracking system for rape kits. Untested kits identified in the statewide audit would also be entered into the system.
The system, accessible to victims, will track the location of kits, whether the kit has been processed and whether it has been destroyed.
OSBI has been developing the system since late 2018, but Senate Bill 967 set into law the requirement for all medical providers, crime labs and law enforcement agencies to participate in it by Jan. 1, 2020.
Senate Bill 971, also by Floyd and Echols, was signed in law on May 9. Effective on Nov. 1., it will require law enforcement officers to complete continuing education through the Council on Law Enforcement Education and Training (CLEET) on how to best respond to reports of sexual assault and how to best handle and maintain rape kits.
Currently, the law requires officers to complete 25 hours of continuing law enforcement training each year. The proposed bill would amend the law to require two of those hours to be on sexual assault issues, including where to take victims and how to handle sexual assault reports.
The law will also require CLEET to establish training on how to best collect and maintain sexual assault kits.
Your financial support for our investigative journalism is now tax deductible. Click here to become a Friend of The Frontier.