Shelby County Sheriff Bill Oldham took fire at a weekend political forum over his department’s backlog of 300 untested rape kits, which Oldham revealed during budget hearings before the Shelby County Commission earlier in the week.
Meaghan Ybos, whose 2003 rape was investigated by the Shelby County Sheriff’s Department but not tested until nine years later, pressed Oldham at the Saturday, April 19, forum held by the Memphis branch of the NAACP about when he found out there was a backlog.
“The Memphis Police Department discovered those. We asked in 2010, when I took office, to have all of those sent to me that were rape kits,” Oldham said. “We received 15 or 20. During the process of MPD checking their property rooms, they discovered a number of rape kits – in the thousands for them, in the hundreds for us. … We immediately began in 2010 a process of our investigators taking those immediately to the TBI (Tennessee Bureau of Investigation) to be processed.”
The TBI is only able to process 10 a month, Oldham added. So his department is using a certified private lab to test kits more quickly, at a rate of 50 a month. He put the backlog at 170 rape kits.
When Ybos pressed for more details on why the backlog wasn’t disclosed earlier, Oldham said he couldn’t comment further because of the federal lawsuit Ybos and two other rape survivors have filed in U.S. District Court over the backlog.
Ybos countered that the Sheriff’s Department is not named as a defendant in the lawsuit. Oldham said county government in general is named as a defendant.
Most of the 80 people who attended the forum at Mt. Olive Cathedral CME Church were either candidates or supporters working in their campaigns. The largest groups in attendance were supporters of Oldham, wearing yellow and green T-shirts, as well as Bennie Cobb, his Democratic challenger in the August county general election, sporting black and gold T-shirts. Neither Oldham nor Cobb faces opposition in their respective primaries on the May ballot.
Cobb did not bring up the rape kit backlog.
Both Oldham and Cobb touted their law enforcement experience
“I cannot knock Bill Oldham’s experience. He has 34 years’ law enforcement experience. I have over 30 years,” said Cobb, who retired in 2011 from the Sheriff’s Department as a captain after 31 years. “But the difference between Bill Oldham and I is service. I’ve been boots on the ground. I’ve been out here with these kids.”
Oldham was elected sheriff in 2010 after serving as chief deputy to Sheriff Mark Luttrell and before that as Memphis Police deputy director and director. He touted his department’s community outreach during his tenure, as well as the formation of the Multi-Agency Gang Unit and the Sheriff’s Office’s participation in the unit.
“We’re working tirelessly to make sure we reach out to the community and work in those organizations that have an impact with our youth in allowing them to have opportunities to have mentors, to have tutors, to have coaches that are involved not only with faith-based organizations by my organization,” Oldham said.