Interview with Rick Bell: Pt. 3

Last week, Special Investigations Division Chief of the Cuyahoga County Prosecutor’s Office Rick Bell shared about the surprising discoveries that emerged from taking an unconventional at the rape kit backlog through an economic impact lens.  In our final part of his interview, Rick talks about how Cuyahoga County is moving forward to address their backlog, and how they’re collaborating with other cities that are doing the same.

ENDTHEBACKLOG: How did your relationship with Detroit and Memphis begin, and how has it progressed as all three cities have begun the process of clearing their backlogs?

Rick Bell: It started in the summer of 2013. We had started our task force in March of that year, and at one of our weekly meetings our elected prosecutor, Tim McGinty, asked us questions: “I wonder how much damage is being caused to the victims in cold hit cases? I wonder how much good we’re doing? Is anybody else doing it differently than we are?” He said, “Rick, why don’t you go to Detroit and find out how they’re doing it over there? They have to be doing something better than us. Go find out how it is that they do it, what they’re doing, bring them everything that we’re doing, see if you can’t have some discussions and find out if there’s something we can do better here.” And Tim would not take no for an answer. He wanted us to find something that we’re doing that could be improved. And that was very important—we were able to come back to say they have the same and similar challenges.

When I visited Detroit in the summer of 2013, they were a little ahead of us at that time, in terms of number of cases they were handling and what they were able to do with them. We were able to tell Prosecutor McGinty what happened there, and then he saw an article in The New York Times about the two victims in Memphis who were suing the city for their rape kits. Prosecutor McGinty was very interested by the Mayor’s response, and the fact that he had taken the lead in Memphis. Ultimately, the Mayor, like the prosecutors in Detroit and Cleveland, was essentially telling the police: you have to do this. And the police had to answer to the Mayor because they work for him. That’s who controls the budget. So Prosecutor McGinty sent Lt. McPike from our Cleveland Police Department, the Chief Investigator from our office and me to Memphis for two days in the summer of 2014 to learn everything they were doing and report back. From that, we were able to bring home some take-aways from Memphis and what they were doing. And they really liked some of the things we were doing, especially our case management program.

Based on my two visits to Detroit and Memphis, we seemed to be, at that point, further along than either of them with our process. We talked about differences, we talked about similarities, and it was very clear to us immediately: we had some very fundamental similarities, some things that each of us was doing the same way. We had fallen into them because there had been a public outcry in each city. And all three cities had decided a couple of things. 

First, the most important thing we decided is all kits have to be tested. It was our Chief of Police in 2010 that decided that he wanted everything tested. He didn’t want any more to be shadowboxing with whether or not a rape kit was tested. And I think perhaps he didn’t trust what he was being told within his own department about whether it had it been tested or not. He just decided to send everything over to our Attorney General, Mike DeWine. AG DeWine responded then to the whole state and said: I’ll test all of your cases.” So there was no inequality, he wasn’t treating Cleveland different than Columbus or Youngstown or Dayton or Akron. If he’s going to do it for Cleveland, he’s going to do it for everybody.

Another thing we learned is all three cities also had the same disciplines at the table, and that was what was making the rape kit reform movement run. So the fact that all three decided to test everything, all three had all the same parties, all three were meeting weekly and all three had somebody else looking over the police department—rather than the police—those were the immediate similarities. 

ETB: What was your inspiration for putting together the first ever Sexual Assault Kit Summit in October 2014, and what did you discover?

Once I had the opportunity to build relationships with Detroit and Memphis, I advised Prosecutor McGinty that I thought it would be a good idea that the three of us come together in a Sexual Assault Kit Summit, because no one had done it yet. We would say: here are the best practices, here are our similarities. We think this is working, here are other things we’re doing, let’s talk about how we can somehow make sure we are collecting statistics the same way and we’re following the same approach. 

What we discovered is that all three cities are following the science. So rather than just letting a police report, which can often be poorly written or even biased against the victim, be the deciding factor on whether you thought that the case might do well up in court, let’s find out if we have the DNA to begin with. And if you do have the DNA, don’t we have a duty then to inform the victims? And if we are informing the victims, don’t we have a duty then to ask them if they want to prosecute? And we’re willing do it with them? So one thing led to another, and all three cities fell into that approach.

ETB: Could you tell me about a powerful moment at the Summit?

RB: A key moment that stood out to me was when Mayor Wharton and Prosecutor Worthy both spoke—one after the other—and they were very moved by the fact that they were not alone. They were very moved by the fact that other people were validating the road that they were paving. They said they were grateful, not for the recognition, but for the fact that they had partners: other people in other cities that felt the same way. There had been so many naysayers along the way that didn’t want this to happen, whether it was the police departments, defense attorneys or the ACLU throwing up roadblocks, or the problem getting funding from legislators. By teaming up with others who felt the same passion that they did, they felt as if they were going in the right direction and that there was hope to be able to finish it. And I’m putting words into their mouths, but that’s the way I felt after listening to both of them speak. And to me, even without best practices—which we were able to form—even without that, the camaraderie itself, and like-mindedness, was powerful. 

My favorite best practice is to “forklift” all rape kits to the lab for testing. That’s where it starts. If each rape kit is tested, investigators and prosecutors will be held accountable for following up on the results. If you follow the science and let that be your guide, then the rest can follow.

ETB: What would you say to jurisdictions that are currently debating whether or not to tackle their rape kit backlogs?

RB: You’re going to have to have courage. You’re going to have some internal debate on whether or not you really want to do this. There will be a lot of rationalizing, or opportunity to rationalize. There’ll be opportunities to say, “I don’t have the resources.” There’ll be opportunities to think that the victims don’t really want this, or to ask, “Why would I bring this back up again?” The police may not want their old police reports to be reviewed, because there will be mistakes in there because of human error. (There’s a lot of human error in the things we do.) But, we have learned that if we approach the victims in the right way, we can make it better -- help right some of the wrong that was done when their kit went untested. In my experience, the victims have been very thankful and grateful for us investigating and prosecuting these cases. As long as you’re transparent and open about the problem, and as long as you have a leader from your jurisdiction that is willing to hold the torch and keep moving in the right direction, it can actually be done. And for us, that leader has been [Cuyahoga County Prosecutor] Tim McGinty, who advocated for us clearing the backlog by testing every kit. You have to make sure that you realize there are a lot of resources that you’ll need on the investigative end. This is truly a team effort -- the police in these three cities have been willing to take on the work, with the help of resources from other agencies. Again, in my experience, everyone wants to do the right thing for the survivors—the police, prosecutors, administration of the cities and advocates. And somebody’s got to step forward and say this is the right thing to do. As soon as that happens, the floodgates break and people are willing to help.

- Vivian Long, May 4th, 2015

ENDTHEBACKLOG is a program 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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