Interview with CBS Investigative Reporter Laura Strickler

I spoke with Laura Strickler, the Washington-based investigative producer for the Emmy-award winning CBS News Investigative Unit since 2006.

Armen Keteyian and Laura Strickler’sfive month investigation into untested rape kits nationwide uncovering 20,000 untested rape kits in various cities won the2010 Emmy for Outstanding Investigative Journalism, as well as the 2010 Gracie Award for Best Investigative Program.

Sarah Tofte: How did you get interested in journalism as a career?

Laura Strickler: In 2003, I was working on a masters in public administration, but I dropped out, and started doing a documentary film program and was completely taken with it. It was much more interesting than statistics.

Long story short, I started in public radio, and joined the CBS News investigative unit in 2006.

ST: How did you get interested in the story of the rape kit backlog?

LS: My colleague had just finished a brilliant story that looked at veteran suicides across the country, and it was a large data project that required my colleague to call every single state’s coroner’s office to figure out how many veterans’ deaths were classified as suicides.  It was a very significant story since it was at the beginning of the national discussion about what could be done to prevent military suicides.

So I was looking for some kind of data project, some story that I could tell, in part, by gathering new data and presenting it to the public. My favorite kinds of stories are where you examine data in a new way.

I had heard about the rape kit backlog in Los Angeles, and I thought, ‘Well, if it happened in LA, it might be happening in other cities.’ So I wanted to see what kind of data we could get from other cities, to take a look at the problem on a national scale. Of course, I thought the project would be quick, that it wouldn’t take that long…

ST:  So, where did you begin with your data collection?

LS: The first thing we wanted to find out was the last time there was a national data point for untested rape kits. We realized the last comprehensive study was done ten years ago, and no one had really looked at the problem nationally since then. So, we started calling dozens of experts on sexual violence and rape kits across the country to get their input on what kind of data would be useful to chart the problem, and the best way to get that data. Then we started calling cities to see if we could get information on their rape kit backlog.

What I did not know starting out, until later, is that there are two kinds of untested kits—there are the kits sitting in the police departments and never sent to the crime lab, and there are the kits that made it to the crime lab but have not been tested. I didn’t realize that when we focused on the cities that it meant obtaining two data points per city.

ST: How did the process go of collecting rape kit data? Did anything about the process surprise you?

LS: We had to be much more aggressive than we originally anticipated with some agencies in order to get the data, and there were plenty of jurisdictions that didn’t want to tell us anything. What we found is that often the reason why many police departments were not telling us anything is because they just didn’t know. They had no idea how many kits they had tested or never tested.

Once we figured out what kind of data we wanted to collect, and from which agencies, it was a process of calling and hoping you get to talk with that right person in the department who has the knowledge and information you need.

ST: Were you surprised to find that there were thousands of untested rape kits in police storage facilities?

LS: Well, I think that in this case, like what happens with many stories, is that you get a tip or a lead about a problem, and you start going down the road investigating, and you discover so much more than you had ever imagined.

Whenever we would hear back from a city that they had thousands of untested kits in their facilities, it was shocking. City officials had different reactions to their rape kit backlog. Some would downplay the significance of the untested kits. In one city, they told us that many of their untested kits would not yield results anyway, which is why they were not sent to a crime lab.

Some agencies were very forthcoming with their problems.

For example, the state crime lab in Louisiana was very transparent and they shared with us how long the kits on active cases had been waiting to be tested, including some that had been waiting for eight years to be tested. Even in cities that have big problems, it was commendable that they were open with us about the nature and extent of their problem, and their need for help.

One of the things I found most surprising is that there was no uniformity between jurisdictions with how rape kits are handled and that every jurisdiction had a different way of recording their rape kit data, or simply had no system at all for how to keep track of these things.

ST: Was there an interaction with a city the outcome of which surprised you the most?

LS: Cleveland. When we first called Cleveland to see if they had any untested kits, they were not open to giving us information. Months later, we did a story about a serial killer who allegedly killed 11 women and sexually assaulted numerous others in the Cleveland area. One reason he was able to get away with his crimes is that the rape complaints against him were not followed up on by the police. Cleveland has the highest rate of rape in the country. Now Cleveland just announced that they are going to count their rape kits and test all rape kits going forward. Based on my first interactions with them, it never occurred to me things would change so much.

I do want to add that in the process of this investigation, we spoke to so many prosecutors and police detectives who are very, very dedicated to helping rape victims find justice and some resolution. What I saw, though, was very real differences in how different law enforcement departments handle rape cases.

ST: A great strength of your reporting was the data you collected. Another strong element was the human element of the work, the interviews with survivors of sexual assault whose rape kits were or are in backlogs. How did you find the survivors you spoke with in the piece?

LS: We did a lot of outreach to victims’ groups across the country, and they put us in touch with Valerie Neumann, the first person we profiled in the story, a woman whose rape kit was never fully tested before her case was closed. The first time she called me, she just had a way of…she had a very strong and powerful story, she was so organized she had every single police record and email communication that happened between her and the police department. And it was vey easy to tell her story, because she had all the evidence with her about what had happened to her rape kit.

The second victim that we profiled was a long, long, process to get the interview, involving multiple trips to Oklahoma, and multiple phone conversations, and many arranged meetings that would fall through at the last minute. She was afraid to talk which I can understand. Finally, on one of my last days in Oklahoma, I was about to give up, when she called and agreed to meet me, and she decided she wanted to share her story.

We spoke with a lot of victims as part of our research for the story, and the most common refrain I heard was that, for so many of them, rape kit testing was a way to get closure, or at least a way to know that someone was listening to them, and that their case mattered to the police.

ST: What allowed you to dedicate so much of your time and energy to this story?

LS: I think it was when my boss here at CBS, said to me about two months into my investigation of the story, ‘I think you should just devote all your time to this story,’ and I just felt incredibly, incredibly lucky that I work at a place like CBS where they would be able to see that was necessary. From then on, it was much easier to make progress, because once I was no longer distracted by other stories, I could really dig in.

Any of these stories that can get at some kind of final, definitive justice, are incredibly compelling, human stories. It’s a tool that can provide peace of mind, and I think it’s certainly worthy of coverage and a lot of follow-up. At CBS, I got a lot of support on this story, and the way this business works, you could never, ever do this kind of thing without this kind of support.

ST: Describe the moment you heard your name called out as the winner of an Emmy for the report.

LS: It was incredibly rewarding. This story was a team effort with my correspondent Armen Keteyian and my senior producer Keith Summa and our team of interns. Almost immediately I thought about how grateful I was that the rape victims told their stories to us, and how grateful we are to them that they were willing to tell their stories. It takes so much guts and I am so humbled by their courage.

To learn more about Laura and her reporting on the rape kit backlog, be sure to visit the CBS News website.

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