A Tulsa Police Department sexual assault evidence collection kit. Photo courtesy NewsOn6

The Tulsa Police Department has been awarded a $1.5 million federal grant that will help the agency process and inventory untested sexual assault examination kits.

The initiative could lead to the reopening of years-old sexual assault cases.

The U.S. Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Assistance awarded the department the Sexual Assault Kit Initiative grant, which will fund a three-year project, the Tulsa Police Department announced Tuesday. The project will encompass several initiatives, which includes processing a portion of untested evidence kits.

The Tulsa Police Department started to audit its untested kits last year and found about 3,000 going back to the early 90s. The grant will allow the agency to spend only up to half of the funding on testing kits, which cost about $1,000 each to process. That would allow the department to use the grant to test about 750 kits.

Phippen told The Frontier last year the audit found the majority of the old kits were not tested because of a reported lack of victim cooperation or the case was adjudicated without the kit requiring testing. Some cases were out of the department’s jurisdiction.

Oklahoma has a statute of limitations of 12 years on rape and forcible sodomy. Sgt. Jillian Phippen, who heads the Tulsa Police Department’s Sex Crime Unit, said the laws will help guide the department on how to prioritize which kits should be tested first.

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The agency will first test kits that are up to 11-years old, Phippen said.

“We know there is evidence in there,” Phippen said of the untested kits. However, she added, if a victim does not want to be involved in his or her case, Tulsa police will respect that.

In recent years, several cities across the U.S. have taken up initiatives to process untested rape kits. In some states, those efforts have led to hundreds of DNA profile matches in a national database, called CODIS, that is maintained by the FBI. Cases that had been closed for years without convictions have been solved.

Some advocates say testing kits outside of the statute of limitations can help catch serial rapists. Testing can also help sexual assault victims feel as if their cases and experiences matter.

Phippen said because the possibility of a heavier caseload created by DNA matches, the grant will pay for a cold case investigator and an investigator for the district attorney’s office. The grant will also help the agency finalize its inventory of untested rape kits, pay for a victim advocate for the sex crimes unit and utilize a tracking database. Another goal is to identify why there are so many untested rape kits in the department’s possession.

Phippen said the proposed tracking system would include a case management system for sexual assault cases and a tool to pinpoint the status of rape kits.

Tulsa Police Department Sgt. Jillian Phippen, who leads the Sex Crimes Unit, discusses the department’s response to sexual assaults during an interview in her office in 2017. DYLAN GOFORTH/The Frontier

To reach victims, the Tulsa Police Department plans to launch an outreach campaign to encourage them to come forward and help them be more informed of their cases, Phippen said. One of the ideas is to allow victims to track their rape kits and see the results.

“We’re really trying to figure out how we can reach our victims so they no longer feel dismissed, no longer feel unheard,” she said. “We’re going to gather a lot of information from this grant and try to make things better. You can always do better.”

Phippen said the sexual assault kit initiative is a collaboration of several organizations, including the University of Tulsa, the Family Safety Center and the Tulsa County District Attorney’s Office. It’s unclear when the department will receive the funding, she said.

A model for the state

Within the last two years, Oklahoma launched an effort to address the issue of untested sexual assault kits, as well as the problem of how law enforcement responds to reports of sexual assault.

In April 2017 Gov. Mary Fallin signed an executive order that created a 17-member task force to determine the number of untested rape in more than 350 law enforcement agencies across the state.

As of May 31, more than 300 Oklahoma law enforcement agencies had counted almost 7,300 untested rape kits in their possession.

The task force was also assigned to find funding to process kits, and identify improvements on law enforcement training and analyzing kits.

The group presented its findings in a report to Fallin earlier this year. In the report and during meetings of the task force, members agreed that if the Tulsa Police Department was awarded the federal Sexual Assault Kit Initiative grant, the agency would serve as a “test run” to help determine what efforts should be recommended to other agencies, potentially on a statewide basis.

The recommendations could include how to inventory kits, test unprocessed kits, how to communicate with victims, prosecution of cases, according to the report.

“All the stakeholders involved with this (the project), we are going to do everything we can to make sure this is successful,” Phippen said.

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