The Honolulu Star Advertiser: Police miss deadline on rape kits

By Sophie Cocke for The Honolulu Star Advertiser

All four of Hawaii’s county police departments have failed to comply with a Sept. 1 statutory deadline requiring them to report to the attorney general’s office the number of untested rape kits they have in storage and the dates the forensic evidence was collected from alleged victims of sexual assault.

The county police reports are supposed to form the basis of a final report due to the Legislature on Dec. 1 that outlines comprehensive policies for clearing out backlogs of untested kits, procedures for testing new ones, and how best to notify victims if their processed kit produces a development in their case. Some of the untested kits are known to date back to the 1990s.

The requirements were signed into law by Gov. David Ige in July as part of Act 207. The law also required the attorney general’s office to form a working group that is responsible for producing the final report. That group has been meeting for several months and is composed of officials from the county police departments, county prosecutors’ offices and service providers for sexual assault victims.

Officials from the attorney general’s office said that the police reports detailing untested kits are being worked on, but declined to specify a date that they should be available.

“I understand the county police are working diligently on these inventory reports and expect they will transmit these reports to us in the near future,” said Attorney General Doug Chin in response to emailed questions.

‘Good-faith effort’

Julie Ebato, administrator for the attorney general’s Crime Prevention and Justice Assistance Division, said that all parties were taking the requirements in Act 207 seriously and that the department expects to meet the Dec. 1 deadline to submit its final report to the Legislature.

“The police have been trying to make a really good-faith effort to get us the data,” she said in an interview.

Ebato said that her department has been lenient with the deadline to make sure that the data that is submitted is accurate and that it doesn’t have to be redone.

Hawaii lawmakers and advocates for victims of sexual assault for years have been asking county police departments to keep track of the rape kits that are submitted to them, concerned in part by media reports throughout the country that have revealed tens of thousands of untested kits have languished in police storage rooms, collecting dust.

While many cities throughout the country, including New York, Los Angeles and Detroit, have moved aggressively ahead in recent years in testing backlogged rape kits, which have helped solve cold cases and identified serial rapists, Hawaii has lagged behind.

Following intense questioning by lawmakers in February, the Honolulu Police Department acknowledged that it had 1,500 untested rape kits in storage, some dating back to the 1990s. The department estimated that only 15 to 20 percent of the rape kits submitted to them were ever tested.

It was the first look lawmakers had been given into the scope of the problem.

No word from HPD

It’s not clear why HPD didn’t submit a report to the attorney general’s office. In addition to the 1,500 figure it provided in February of untested rape kits, the department said at the time that it had also received federal funds to conduct the inventory.

HPD spokeswoman Michelle Yu said the department planned to respond to questions from the Honolulu Star-Advertiser, but late Friday said she was still waiting on information from the department.

There have yet to be any estimates coming out of the Hawaii and Maui County police departments. A spokesman for the Maui County police didn’t respond by deadline to questions about why it hadn’t submitted its report to the attorney general.

Hawaii Police Department Assistant Chief Henry Tavares said the department was still working on its report and planned to submit it by Sept. 26.

“We are working on it,” he said. “As you know, it’s an enormous task and we are working with the attorney general’s office and as soon as we get it we will forward the report to them.”

Tavares said he had no idea how many rape kits the department may be dealing with. He said the department is having to undertake a manual review of all its sexual assault reports.

By contrast, the Kauai Police Department said it had already cleared out a backlog of about 65 kits with the help of federal funds, but still needed time to file its report with the attorney general.

Sexual assault kits contain DNA evidence collected by medical staff from the bodies and clothes of victims after a sexual assault, such as hair samples, swabs of bodily fluids and clothing. It can be a painstaking process for victims, often lasting three to five hours.

The forensic evidence can be used in the prosecution of individual crimes, but it’s also uploaded into a national DNA database, known as CODIS, which can help solve other crimes, including by identifying serial rapists.

For instance, at the end of last year, Detroit was in the midst of processing 11,341 untested rape kits that were discovered in a Detroit Police Department storage facility, according to the Joyful Heart Foundation. Out of 10,000 kits that were tested, there were 2,616 DNA matches, and 652 potential serial rapists were identified.

‘Not dropping it’

Forensic evidence isn’t always needed to solve individual sexual assault cases and sometimes victims choose not to move forward with prosecution. But by processing the kits and uploading the results into the CODIS database, victims advocates say, police can help solve cold cases, identify repeat rapists and prevent them from committing additional crimes.

It’s estimated that 1 in 7 women in Hawaii will be raped during their lifetime, according to statistics from the Sex Abuse Treatment Center in Honolulu. Of the victims treated at the center from 2001 to 2010, 58 percent of them were under the age of 18.

Sen. Laura Thielen, a member of the Women’s Legislative Caucus who has led efforts to have rape kits tested, said that lawmakers are going to keep pressing the issue.

“The Women’s Caucus at the Legislature is going to be picking this issue up next session and we are looking forward to receiving the report and working with the various agencies and advocacy groups to move forward on this issue,” she said. “This is something that we have had an interest in for a long time and we have been waiting for this information for a long time. And we expect to make progress next year. So we are not dropping it.”

Two of the leading women’s advocacy organizations that had pushed aggressively during this year’s legislative session for strong testing mandates were excluded from the working group that will assemble the final report. The Joyful Heart Foundation, which for years has been at the forefront nationally in pushing police departments to test all of the rape kits submitted to them for sexual assault investigations, and the Hawaii State Commission on the Status of Women, which serves as a central legislative advocacy organization for women, had hoped to be at the table.

“We were just kind of left out, which was distressing to me because I think it is an issue of community accountability and I really think the community should be at the table,” said Cathy Betts, the commission’s executive director.

As for the missed Sept. 1 deadline, she said the community is still left guessing as to the extent of Hawaii’s rape kit backlog.

“It leads me to think that the kits are all over the place,” said Betts.

Kata Issari, executive director of Joyful Heart Foundation’s Hawaii office, said by email that her organization is “hopeful that they will fulfill their obligation to report on the number of untested kits in their possession, as this is a crucial component of creating rape kit reform in our state.”

While the Joyful Heart Foundation and Hawaii Commission on the Status of Women were excluded from the working group, Chin, the attorney general, said that both groups had been asked to provide his office with suggestions for the working group and to review drafts of the final report. He said that the Commission on the Status of Women said it would, while the Joyful Heart Foundation declined.

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