As Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr. announced Wednesday, Feb. 12, that the city would have help from a national nonprofit on the Memphis Police Department’s backlog of 12,000 rape kits, criticism was growing of the problems in the local criminal justice system that led to the backlog.
The backlog, according to Memphis police, began building steadily in 1985 as investigators using the kits took DNA samples from rape victims and police stored them without ever processing them.
Wharton announced Wednesday the Joyful Heart Foundation will assist the city in identifying best practices going forward not just in the processing of rape kits but how rape cases are handled in the future by the criminal justice system.
He also named former U.S. Attorney Veronica Coleman-Davis to look at how the backlog happened and report on that as well as how to avoid a backlog in the future.
“She has free reign to look everywhere. … Our initial focus is victim centered. … As we pursue that inquiry, if I find culpability somewhere, it will be dealt with,” Wharton said. “But I’m not going into this in terms of I’ve got to find a bad person here. Let’s face it, we had a systemic failure here. Let’s deal with that at first. If it turns out that this systemic failure was caused by the culpable actions of individuals, they will be dealt with.”
Coleman-Davis said she will undertake a “comprehensive review” with recommendations to ensure “this never happens again.”
“It is my plan to gather from many individuals, organizations … what we understand and how we got to this point,” she said.
Wharton also estimated it will take five years to clear the backlog and $5 million in city funding to have all of the kits processed for DNA evidence. Most of the 2,226 rape kits sent to labs so far from the 12,164 in the backlog – 61 percent – have tested positive for serology meaning they advance to testing for DNA.
Wharton intends to take a funding resolution to the Memphis City Council at its Feb. 18 meeting seeking $1 million in additional funding for the testing. He is talking with the state about a possible $2 million pool of money and is seeking funding from various philanthropies and nonprofits.
The night before Wharton made the formal announcement, an exchange between Meaghan Ybos, a rape survivor whose rape kit is among those in the backlog, and Dottie Jones, director of community services for Shelby County government, demonstrated the frustration over the larger issues represented by the backlog.
Ybos and others in the group of 40 at a forum by the Mid-South Peace and Justice Center at First Congregational Church in Cooper-Young said the backlog shows the criminal justice system is “broken.”
“We all risked our lives by doing what the system told us to do,” Ybos said of rape survivors who called the police after their assaults and had DNA samples taken from their bodies and put in the rape kits. “Certainly there was a lack of understanding. … It was not made a priority.”
The response to victims of rape involves county as well as city agencies. And Jones defended the work of the sexual assault center that is county government’s responsibility as she noted there are rape kit backlogs in other major American cities. She also told Ybos that the “attitudes of investigators have had to change” from a mindset that victims first had to prove their credibility.
“We have so far to go before we can boast on our law enforcement,” Ybos replied.
Jones said she wasn’t boasting.
“I didn’t say that,” Jones countered. “It is what it is. I won’t make a value judgment about it. … I said they are moving in a direction where they are starting to understand.”
But there were others in the audience who work in the criminal justice system who were also critical and showed up to voice those opinions emphasizing several times that they were only speaking for themselves and not for the agencies they work for.
Also among the critics was Bill Powell, the county’s retired criminal justice system coordinator.
“That’s good,” Powell said of Jones’ point about people in the system who are doing the right thing. “But at the end of this, are you satisfied with the response? I’m hearing resoundingly from most of you that you are not.”
Powell said the backlog and its underlying issues are “policy decisions.”
“It’s not a money choice. It’s not any other kind of issue than is it a priority,” he added. “If they were not just crimes against women, would we be satisfied?”