Featured Reformer: Keli Rabon

Keli Rabon, reporting on the backlog for Call7 News in Denver.

Keli Rabon is an investigative reporter with Call7News in Denver, Colorado. Her work to uncover rape kit backlogs in both Denver and Memphis has led to policy changes and state laws, and has earned Keli numerous regional and national awards. Of her reporting on the backlog she has said:

"Untested rape kits are one of those issues where I have been very fortunate to be recognized and win great awards for the work I’ve done, and it’s sparked a lot of change. But it still makes me cringe when I think about it because there shouldn’t be this issue out there. I’ve always wanted to be a journalist because I have this burning desire to shed light on problems that people in charge don’t want you to know about, to do stories that impact people."

ENDTHEBACKLOG spoke with Keli about her work to shed a light on the untested kits in police storage facilities.

ENDTHEBACKLOG: When did you first learn about your local backlog?

Keli Rabon: When I was working in Memphis, I remembered seeing a story that Armen Keteyian did for CBS News about untested rape kits across the country. That story really resonated with me because in Memphis, the news is saturated with crime, but murders and shootings get the most attention. I wondered what was happening with rape cases—were they being investigated, or just overlooked? I started to put in requests, and my eyebrows were raised immediately because the city wasn’t sure about its numbers [of untested kits]. Then, they gave me a different answer, and a few months later, a different answer. In Denver, because I had experience investigating untested rape kits, my news director encouraged me to look into it here.

Several police departments brushed it off as a “non-story.” I cannot tell you how many times I was told, “This is not a story.” They actually engaged in personal attacks against me, my credibility and my sources because I was pursuing this story.

For me, it’s just being curious and not taking “no” for an answer from departments. If you can tell me how many guns you have in storage, or how many bags of pot, you should be able to tell me how many kits you have, and whether they have been tested.

ETB: Did anything about the process of collecting rape kit data surprise you?

KR: It surprised me how little departments knew or were willing to reveal about the number of untested kits. In Memphis, they had no idea and then gave me numbers, but when I checked with the state, the numbers didn’t correlate with what the state had tested. The inconsistencies surprised me. Police usually follow by the rule book very closely and are all about data and having to check on the chain of custody. When it came to rape kits, that wasn’t the case. The more I looked into it, the less surprising it became. That’s just the way it is.

ETB: Why did you take on this issue?

KR: I thought for survivors, they’ve already taken the huge step, the brave step of coming forward and seeking help from the police, who are supposed to protect you. When survivors are overlooked and dismissed by the people who they are supposed to be able to rely on, there’s nothing more they can really do. I had an opportunity to do what they couldn’t. It is the least I can do. As a journalist, I can’t change what happened in the past, but I can change what happens in the future.

ETB: Why is it important to you and your community that the backlog be addressed?

KR: It affects the safety of everyone. Whether you are a sexual assault survivor or not, identifying that rapist and taking him off the streets so he does not offend again makes the community safer. They don’t stop at rape. They are involved in a variety of other crimes. Testing can link them to many crimes. It affects the entire community.

ETB: Why do you think backlogs exist?

KR: That’s been the one question I wish I could answer and I don’t know if I ever will be able to. From my experience, observation and opinion, it’s just not a priority. It might not be willful, but dismissing sexual assault victims is part of the rape culture. Instead of believing them from the get-go, it seems more often than not, police approach survivors in the opposite way: “you need to prove to me that this actually happened.” We heard time and time again, when the victim knew the attacker—it doesn’t matter how well, it could be an acquaintance for an hour—testing doesn’t prove the consent issue. But, it can prove patterns.

ETB: What needs to change to ensure effective and responsible testing of kits moving forward?

KR: Accountability. Going back to Memphis, it still bothers me that when I left, no one kept holding their feet to the fire. At the time, they said they would test all kits and they made a commitment to the public. Here we are four years later, and that didn’t happen. It’s just happening now. In Colorado, they’re sending all old kits out to crime labs. Once they get results, it’s contingent on the departments to do something with it. They have to let the public know: this is our plan, how many kits we’re testing and the results. Right now, there is not a transparency requirement for departments, but the public cannot let this issue fall by the wayside.

ETB: When a city has a backlog, what kind of message does that send to the community?

KR: Survivors often say that when they were trying to heal, they received the message of “what happened to you doesn’t matter.” That has to be the most hurtful thing to hear or to feel. So often, I’ve heard survivors say what happened was bad, but to put trust in the police and have them not do anything is just another slap in the face. It’s really sad. There’s a lot of talk about rape culture, and I think there is truth to that. It is prevalent throughout society, and evident in police not taking sexual assault seriously and thinking it’s not necessary to test rape kits.

ETB: What have you learned from your work on the backlog?

KR: There are a lot of survivors out there who have been hurting for a long time. Their trust was violated by the people who raped them and the people who were supposed to protect them. I have also learned there are people out there who do want to make a difference and who stick their necks out to hold perpetrators accountable and bring justice to survivors.

ETB: What results have you seen thus far from your work on the backlog?

KR: In Memphis, we’ve seen over 12,000 untested kits now brought to light and a commitment to testing. Incredible steps have been taken in Colorado. It surprises me how quickly they took action after my story, for the bill to sail through the legislature and be signed. It all happened in six months. To see 6,000 kits shipped off to be tested in Colorado, it’s amazing.

ETB: What advice would you give to someone in your role in another city/state?

KR: For one, call me. I am happy to help formulate records requests and talk through the hurdles you have to jump through to get the information. Be prepared for the pushback that comes from tackling an issue like this. It’s not flattering for a police department for this information to get out to the public. Survivors have gone through the worst part. If it’s pushback or ridicule from the police, I can handle that, and you can, too. It’s our job as journalists. 

Follow Keli on Twitter at @KeliRabon.

-June 10th, 2014

keep up with backlog news

END THE BACKLOG is a JOYFUL HEART FOUNDATION initiative and a proud supporter of