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BYU research shows Utah police testing more rape kits

(KUTV) New research out of BYU shows police departments in Utah have responded to cries from rape survivors and their advocates by testing more rape kits.

“Law enforcement really needs to be commended in this change. It shows they have been listening to their constituents,” said BYU Professor and forensic nurse Dr. Julie Valentine.

Valentine, who spearheaded the research, said currently seven of the most populated counties in Utah are now testing 75 percent of rape kits. That number is up considerably from her original research which shed light on the problem of Utah police departments that were not testing rape evidence.

Her original study focused on the seven counties and 1,874 rape kits they’d collected between 2010 and 2013. Only 38 percent of those kits were sent to the crime lab for testing to help find and arrest the rape suspects.

Currently, she said Washington County has made most progress testing 93 percent of its kits compared to 18 percent in the original study.

Lee Russo, Chief of Police for West Valley City, is one of the Chiefs who immediately responded to calls for police departments to dust off the old evidence kits and submit them to the crime lab for DNA testing.

When he arrived in West Valley as the new police chief in 2013, the department had compiled 126 kits that were just sitting in the evidence room.

Russo said he found that West Valley Police had a long-time culture of allowing a single investigator to decide whether or not a rape kit was tested.

Today, he’s changed the protocol at his department. Officers were trained to start by believing every victim. They were also trained to interview victims with a new approach that focuses not only on solving the crime, but on supporting the victims.

Finally, he set new policy for rape kit testing.

“The decision is we are going to test every kit and make sure justice is done for every victim,” he said.

Valentine said what happened in West Valley years ago, happened in other police departments across Utah: kits were mostly not tested and rapists were not found and arrested.

Valentine said whether or not a department submitted a kit for testing was random – it often depended on the culture within the police department. Many departments gave total discretion to the investigating officer to decide whether a rape case should be pursued and had no protocol in place.

After victims and their advocates started publicly demanding testing of rape kits, police departments responded.

The Utah State Crime lab supports advocates who say testing every kit is important to justice. DNA they say, can also help stop serial rapists.

Valentine said current efforts by police departments to test all kits is paying off for victims as rapists are convicted.

In nine cases, Valentine said DNA testing helped clear people who were wrongly accused. These were cases where the victim was not conscious when she was raped and it wasn’t clear who committed the assault.

“It’s using science to solve crimes but that also means it’s using science to prevent wrongful convictions,” she said.

Currently, the Utah Legislature is considering House Bill 200 which mandates that every rape kit is tested within 30 days.

The bill has support but it comes with a $2.4 million yearly cost. The crime lab has said that’s how much it will cost to hire and train the staff to do the DNA testing.

Valentine said it’s important for lawmakers to pass and fully fund the bill.

Otherwise, the backlog of rape kits will just move from the police department shelves to the crime lab shelves.

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