Sex Crimes Unit Completes ‘Eye-Opening’ Training

By Bill Dries

Memphis police officers working in the sex crimes unit have been in training this month about neurological changes in rape and sexual assault victims they work with.

Memphis City Council members continue to monitor the Memphis Police Department’s progress in clearing a backlog of rape kits, and the updates now includes more about what the department is doing to change its handling of rape cases going forward.

(Daily News File/Lance Murphey)

The training, along with new positions specifically to handle the city’s rape kit backlog, is among the latest changes in the Memphis Police Department’s approach.

“It changed people’s opinions on why a victim acts the way they do,” Memphis Police Deputy Chief Jim Harvey told Memphis City Council members Tuesday, Aug. 19, in the department’s monthly update on the backlog to the council.

The training attempts to explain to investigators and other law enforcement officers why a rape victim may not remember details until much later or may have what seems an inappropriate reaction like laughter that might lead them to dismiss something they should take seriously.

“You can see the loss of your ability to even make coherent thoughts,” Harvey said. “When that happens your body produces chemicals that scatter all of these thoughts across your brain. It takes time.”

Harvey, a veteran police officer, described the training as “eye opening.”

Some of the rape survivors whose cases are part of the untested backlog have said they weren’t believed by police department investigators. And the skepticism was cited among the findings in a report commissioned by the city done by former U.S. Attorney Veronica Coleman-Davis. In her report, she said the problem involved long-held attitudes toward rape and sexual assault. Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr. has attributed the disbelief in the accounts to “sexism” on the part of some police officers.

Among those at the training were new investigators added to the sex crimes unit as well as seven more investigators added to the police DNA unit that is working on the backlog as well as new cases.

The city still has a $3.7 million gap in the funding it needs to process the backlog of rape kits, according to Harvey. The backlog was initially put at more than 12,000 with the kits being sent for testing and processing in allotments of 400 kits each.

The timeline of five years to clear the backlog and establish a new process for the handling of such evidence on a permanent basis has been delayed a bit, Harvey added, by bids on the police DNA evidence storage room to be built for the evidence.

Bids on the project came back and the city selected a bidder but the company that didn’t get the bid is now protesting the award.

Meanwhile, the oldest kits in the backlog, some dating back to the mid-1980s, are in turn prompting a search for the paperwork that is not filed on computer databases or digitally.

“Some of those old cases, the DNA result sheets are stored at TBI,” Harvey said referring to the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation. “We’re having to do research to get them enough information. … These old records, a lot of them are in file cabinets.”

Meanwhile, the Memphis-Shelby Crime Commission resumed monthly reporting of city and county crime statistics that had been halted for months because of “technical problems” with the TBI database, according to the commission.

The problem is domestic violence offenses are counted unlike other categories. They are counted by a victim count reported to the TBI. In other instances a single “incident” is defined by the Tennessee Incident Based Reporting System as one or more offenses by the same offenders or group of offenders at the same time and place.

The crime categories in the report distinguish among forcible rape, all assaults and forcible and non-forcible sex offenses. Forcible rape is considered in the major violent crime category. The others are domestic violent crimes based on whether the victim knew the offender.

The difference is consistent with categories and counts used by the FBI.

The difference in categories also serves to highlight one of the reasons police brass have given since last year in their explanations of the rape kit backlog. Some have said police didn’t test rape kits if the victim and suspect knew each other.

Year to date through the end of July, there were 24.8 forcible rapes reported in Shelby County per 100,000 population – a 6.9 percent increase from the same period in 2013. Since 2006, which includes the time when the rape kit backlog was growing, the number of reported forcible rapes is down 17.1 percent.

The crime commission uses 2006 as its baseline for tracking increases or decreases because that is the year local law enforcement, civic leaders and political leaders adopted the Operation Safe Community anti-crime plan.

Violent crime in Memphis across forcible rape and other categories increased 5.7 percent from a year earlier and for the county as a whole including Memphis, increased 5.8 percent from a year ago.

From a year ago, major property crimes were down 5.5 percent countywide and down 5.4 percent in Memphis.