Following an audit that counted more than 7,000 untested rape kits in law enforcement departments across Oklahoma, the state is now contemplating the most cost-efficient way to test them.
Gov. Mary Fallin issued an executive order last year that created a 17-member task force to determine the number of untested rape kits in law enforcement agencies across Oklahoma.
As of May 31 — the deadline for agencies to respond to the order — 312 law enforcement agencies reported 7,270 untested rape kits, some of which are decades old. More than 100 agencies did not respond.
Task force members, along with a state representative, are now exploring ways to process the untested rape kits and secure funding for testing kits collected in the future.
As required by the order, the task force submitted its findings and recommendations to Fallin, the president pro tempore of the Senate, and the speaker of the House on July 1. In their 23-page report, task force members laid out two main routes Oklahoma could take for processing its untested kits — both of which would cost millions of dollars.
One of those avenues would direct the state to outsource kit analysis, which would cost about $9.5 million, the task force estimated. That cost would include testing the kits and overtime for employees to prep evidence.
Each rape kit costs about $1,000 to $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 state could also choose to do in-house analysis, with Tulsa and Oklahoma City police departments analyzing their own kits and Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation taking the rest. However, the task force’s estimates indicate that could cost more than outsourcing: about $12 million.
The bulk of that cost would fall on the Tulsa Police Department, which would need to pay an estimated $7.48 million to analyze its kits.
Of the 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, according to the task force’s final report.
The remaining 2,200 untested kits could be processed by the OSBI.
Rep. Monroe Nichols, D-Tulsa, requested an interim study on examining funding options to process rape kits, as well as other best practices.
Interim studies allow representatives an opportunity outside of the legislative session to delve further into particular issues. Nichols’ interim study has been combined with two other criminal justice-related studies.
Nichols said the goal of the study is to not only identify ways to pay for the analysis of the state’s thousands of untested kits, but also to secure funding to test future kits.
“My big goal, and I hope through the task force and others we can come up with some ways to deal with the backlog, but beyond that make sure we’re doing things on a go-forward basis,” Nichols said.
As part of the study, Nichols said he would like to bring in advocates and law enforcement from other states that have made strides in confronting the issue of untested kits. Some states, such as California, have included money in their state budgets for testing.
Nichols said people are now more aware of the negative impacts sexual assault can have than ever before. He said Oklahoma hasn’t necessarily ignored the issue, but it hasn’t been on the front burner, either.
“The time is right,” Nichols said. “If tomorrow, we were able to test 10,000 rape kits that are there, that’s a huge deal. But if we don’t put processes in place that back log is just going to happen again.”
Oklahoma does not have the resources to test all untested kits at once, according to the task force’s report. Instead, task force members looked at ways to prioritize which should be processed first. They proposed looking at criteria such as whether the case still falls within the statute of limitations and whether the offender was a stranger to the victim.
Though the state does not have the money to analyze its 7,200 untested kits, agencies can apply for grants. Task force members have said during meetings that the audit has put the state in a better position to apply for federal grants to address the issue.
Earlier this year, the Tulsa Police Department applied for the National Sexual Assault Kit Initiative, a federal project through the U.S. Department of Justice. The grant would provide funding for a three-year project.
In its report, task force members wrote TPD’s grant, if awarded, could serve as a “test run” for future recommendations on how to best test kits and identify issues involving victims and prosecution.
TPD Sgt. Jillian Phippen, head of the Sex Crimes Unit, said she does not expect to learn whether the department was rewarded the grant until October.
There are several reasons why an agency might choose to not analyze a kit.
The task force found the most common answer agencies gave was marked as “Other.” Thirty-two percent of untested kits fell into that category. While some agencies only marked “other” and gave no additional information, others gave reasons such as the victim changing their story or a lack of evidence in the case.
Other common reasons: Lack of victim cooperation (23 percent) and the district attorney declining to file charges in the case (14 percent).
In recent years, there have been efforts in several states to determine the number of untested rape kits and test them. Researchers and proponents say testing old kits can catch serial rapists, and help victims of sexual assault feel as if their cases matter.
Some states, including Connecticut, Ohio and Michigan, have laws that mandate submission of all rape kits for testing in a timely manner.
A few states — Oregon, Pennsylvania and Kentucky — have laws that give victims of sexual assault the right to know of the status of their kits.
Texas is crowdfunding an effort to process untested rape kits.