Creating A Victim Notification Procedure in Fayetteville

Today’s guest author is Lieutenant John Somerindyke from the Fayetteville, North Carolina Police Department (FPD). As a 2015 Sexual Assault Kit Initiative grantee, FPD was tasked with testing backlogged rape kits, notifying victims, and investigating cases. Here, Lt. Somerindyke shares FPD’s efforts to establish a victim notification protocol to re-engage survivors in the criminal justice system.

In February 2015, I started reviewing numerous long-standing unsolved rape case files to determine if there was a sufficient number of cases to form a Cold Case Sexual Assault Unit. I quickly discovered several unsolved rape cases which could be reopened and investigated. One case in particular had only a minimal follow-up investigation, and an arrest could have been made. However, when I pulled the evidence for the case, I discovered that the sexual assault kit had been disposed, meaning it had been destroyed. To my dismay, I found that several sexual assault kits for other unsolved rape cases had also been disposed. Upon notifying Police Chief Harold Medlock, a complete audit of all sexual assault kits in custody of the Fayetteville Police Department was ordered and conducted. This audit revealed that for sexual assault kits collected between 1995 and 2008, more than 300 kits had been disposed to create needed space in FPD’s evidence room.

In the meantime, the City of Fayetteville—more specifically the Special Victims Unit—was anxiously awaiting notification about the 2015 Sexual Assault Kit Initiative (SAKI) grant from the U.S. Department of Justice. In September 2015, the FPD was awarded a $363,000 SAKI grant to assist in bringing justice to rape survivors. This grant was a significant accomplishment for FPD, and we were extremely excited to start this project.

This celebration was followed by a press conference held by Chief Medlock to notify the community that more than 300 sexual assault kits had been disposed of by the FPD. This news was especially disheartening to me because my efforts to create a Cold Case Sexual Assault Unit led to FPD’s unfavorable news coverage. However, this low point for the agency has evolved into one of the most rewarding experiences in my career. Chief Medlock reopened all of the cases identified in the audit that were connected to a sexual assault kit that had been disposed of. The full investigative responsibility for these cases was placed under my supervision. Although our Unit was at full capacity working current cases, we reopened the 333 old rape cases and began the process of notifying the victims.

In the beginning, we didn’t have a victim notification procedure for these cold cases. In fact, I had never even heard of the term “victim notification procedure.” Fortunately, with the SAKI grant, I was soon exposed to this concept and to the great resources available from the SAKI technical assistance partners. At FPD, we used this information to develop our victim notification procedure. We strive to take a survivor-centered approach, which means the survivor is given choices on how to receive information and interact with the criminal justice system. The survivor also has access to the resources available through our local rape crisis center.

We believe that all survivors have the right to know what happened to their sexual assault kit, and they deserve an apology. We’ve received a wide range of responses during these notifications, but most of the survivors we have contacted appreciate our efforts and are grateful for receiving information about the status of their kit. Some survivors choose to opt out of further investigation as they have chosen to not revisit the experience and engage in the criminal justice system. Others have chosen to have their case investigated.

I have had a couple of pretty memorable experiences during these notifications that I don’t think I will ever forget. One of the main goals of victim notification in cold cases is to regain the victim’s trust. One survivor, after notification, told me that she regained her faith in the Fayetteville Police Department. Another survivor, after we finished our conversation, told me to go home to my family that night and smile. Both were very moving and touching moments that I will keep with me forever. Of course, these notifications have been time-consuming and emotionally draining at times, but overall, I can look back with a great deal of satisfaction and know that we are doing the right thing.

On November 8, FPD announced we had completed notification to all of the victims whose kits had been disposed. The cases have been closed out with the following results:

  • FPD notified victim: 78 percent of cases
  • Victim deceased: 7 percent of cases
  • FPD notified parent, guardian, or family member who knew of the assault: 5 percent of cases
  • FPD was unable to locate the victim: 10 percent of cases

Detectives with the FPD Special Victims Unit have made arrests in three of the cases and will continue to follow up with these investigations to bring justice to the victims of these crimes.

Through these notification efforts, we proved that FPD is committed to taking rape cases seriously, and that we will reopen and investigate the cases related to the disposed sexual assault kits if a survivor chooses to be involved in the criminal justice process. We are putting perpetrators on notice that we are coming for them. Most importantly, FPD is telling survivors we didn’t forget about them and do care; we will treat them with dignity and respect while helping them find justice.

END THE BACKLOG is an initiative of the Joyful Heart Foundation to shine a light on the backlog of untested rape kits throughout the United States. Our goal is to end this injustice by conducting groundbreaking research identifying the extent of the nation’s backlog and best practices for eliminating it, expanding the national dialogue on rape kit testing through increased public awareness, engaging communities and government agencies and officials, and advocating for comprehensive rape kit reform legislation and policies at the local, state and federal levels. We urge you to learn more about the backlog, where it exists, and why it matters. We invite you to take action and support efforts to test rape kits. Help us send the message that we must take rape seriously.

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