In her office on the third floor of the Police-Courts Building in downtown Tulsa, Sgt. Jillian Phippen has spent hours sifting through records and databases trying to find information on untested rape kits.
It’s a complicated process, made more difficult by the Tulsa Police Department’s antiquated record-keeping system.
First, she has to find a receipt number for the rape kit. Then, Phippen looks for the kit’s case number. Next, she must search through dozens of pages of investigative files to see whether the kit has been tested. And if it hasn’t, why not?
In April 2017, Gov. Mary Fallin signed an executive order that created a 17-member task force to determine the number of untested evidence collection kits, often called rape kits, in more than 300 law enforcement agencies in Oklahoma. The order required departments to complete an audit of their untested kits by Dec. 30.
The deadline passed and only 60 percent of the state’s sheriff’s offices and less than half of police departments responded. Fallin set a new date for law enforcement to submit audits for Feb. 15.
Tulsa’s police department is one of the agencies that missed the deadline, but it wasn’t for a lack of trying, Phippen said.
“If you work with us on a day-to-day basis, you know how important these reports are to us,” Phippen said. “And we really do put a lot of heart and empathy into these, and we know how violent these offenders are. …
“We want to get it done, so we’re getting it done. But Feb. 15 is going to be tight.”
Phippen, head of TPD’s sex crimes unit and a member of Fallin’s task force, estimated the agency has between 5,000 to 6,000 rape kits going back to the 1980s. The agency does not have a backlog of current rape kits waiting to be tested.
There is no tracking system for the agency’s rape kits — no database or even a spreadsheet that shows how many kits it has.
Case records before the early 2000s aren’t digitized, but are tucked away in file cabinets in a large warehouse. Older rape kits might not be in the department’s database, either. Some must be handpicked from boxes stored in the agency’s evidence room. On top of that, TPD has several, separate databases that don’t interconnect.
It’s complex and time consuming.
Phippen even printed out multi-page, step-by-step guides for workers on how to search all of the information and where to find it.
Each year takes around eight to 10 hours to audit, Phippen said. Fallin’s audit mandate did not come with state funding.
“So just with that information, I think you can start to see how complicated this audit is and how labor-intensive and what it’s actually going to take financially to get this done,” Phippen said.
“It was never from the beginning that Tulsa Police Department didn’t want to do this, it has always interested us.”
In recent years, there has been a nationwide effort to determine the number of untested rape kits and test them. Researchers and proponents say testing old kits can catch serial rapists.
Phippen applied for a federal grant last year to assist with the costs of auditing and testing rape kits, but the agency was not awarded the funding. She said she plans to reapply this year.
“So moving forward, we knew that this was an unfunded mandate, and it was just unreachable for us in the beginning,” Phippen said.
So far TPD has audited five years that span through 2010 to 2016 and found 680 untested kits, according to TPD data. About half of the kits weren’t tested because of a lack of victim cooperation.
Other common reasons kits go untested: The district attorney’s office declined to file charges, the victim declined to make a police report or the case was outside of the department’s jurisdiction.
On Jan. 18, Fallin announced agencies that fail to meet the Feb. 15 deadline will lose federal grants administered by state agencies.
“We should be doing everything we can to support the survivors of this horrific crime,” Fallin said in a news release. “This information is crucial to ensure rape victims are able to seek justice and begin the healing process.”
As a member of the Fallin’s task force, Phippen said she helped suggest consequences for law enforcement agencies that fail to comply with the audit. She said it seemed some of the departments that didn’t submit audits didn’t see why they had to comply with the executive order.
“I think the main reason is because people really said, ‘Well why? And what are you going to do if we don’t do it,” Phippen said.
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 told The Frontier in a previous interview there also was some confusion among agencies about what information they needed to provide.
Two of Phippen’s three detectives are working overtime to try to complete the audit, and following Fallin’s announcement, the agency hired five civilians to help speed up the process.
On top of the audit, the sex crime unit has a hefty caseload. Half of Phippen’s detectives were recently assigned as patrol officers to make up for low staffing levels within the agency, she said.
“Then you have to start prioritizing these cases, which you never want to do,” Phippen said. “As a supervisor you read sexual assaults daily, how do you prioritize those, right? So it’s hard.”
Phippen said she hopes the department will have a total of 12 years audited by Feb. 15.
“It’s a sampling at least,” she said.
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 them DNA to databases.
Oklahoma City Police Department spokeswoman Megan Morgan said the agency completed its audit and found 1,593 untested kits in its custody.
Though Fallin’s order does not 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 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.
“This is a good way to police ourselves and to figure out, are we doing what we can do for our victims,” Phippen said.