LANSING, Mich. – Chronic understaffing and police attitudes toward victims contributed to thousands of rape kits going untested for years in Detroit, but the city's success in clearing the backlog could be a model for other cities facing similar problems, according to a report released Tuesday.
A final review of the city's effort, released by the U.S. Justice Department's National Institute of Justice, said a coalition of law enforcement agencies, victims' advocates and other groups proved successful in Detroit and could set a national example. But researchers also found that a lack of resources and staff, and police attitudes toward rape, contributed to the backlog.
"There was clear evidence of police treating victims in dehumanizing ways," the report states. Researchers also found that law enforcement personnel regularly expressed "negative, stereotyping beliefs about sexual assault victims."
Around 8,700 untested rape kits were found in Detroit in 2009, including some dating back to the 1980s. The city has since cleared the backlog — and made several arrests — thanks to a coalition that included the Wayne County prosecutor's office, Detroit and state police, Michigan State University researchers, and nursing and victim advocacy groups. The coalition, formed with the help of funding from the National Institute of Justice, began its work in 2011.
The coalition developed victim-centered training for police, prosecutors, nurses and advocates to help address negative attitudes toward reports of sexual assault.
Detroit also received $4 million from the state to specifically work on testing kits, and the Wayne County Prosecutor's Office partnered with the Michigan Women's Foundation and Detroit Crime Commission to raise money for investigating and prosecuting rape cases.
"Rape kit testing reform is possible, and we showed how to do it," said Rebecca Campbell, a psychology professor at Michigan State University who was the lead investigator on the report. "Our work in Detroit can serve as a model for other communities in how to form multidisciplinary partnerships, develop evidence-based solutions for rape kit testing and help survivors heal from the trauma of rape."
She said all of the untested Detroit kits have now been tested with funding from Gov. Rick Snyder's office and the state attorney general. Some still are going through scientific technical review.
Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy announced last year that testing had resulted in identifying 127 serial sexual assaults. About 59 percent had yielded matches in a federal DNA databank, with at least 87 serial rapists identified and 10 convictions made.
Under laws signed by Snyder last year, police are required to obtain a rape-evidence box from a health care facility within 14 days of being notified. Police have 14 more days to submit the DNA to a lab, where it generally must be analyzed within 90 days.
Natasha Alexenko is a survivor of sexual assault and founder of Natasha's Justice Project, which works to address backlogs of rape kits around the country. She said other cities have been paying close attention to Detroit.
"These reports coming out are definitely going to make other jurisdictions sit up, take notice, and say it's time to take care of our backlog as well," Alexenko said.