After CNN investigation released last week revealed that police in an estimated 400 cases across the country had thrown away rape kits before the statute of limitations expired, lawmakers now have an opportunity to crack down on the officers trashing them.
CNN now reports that the Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, and Georgia state Rep. Scott Holcomb have all pledged to ensure their state agencies don’t mishandle rape kits or inappropriately destroy them. And in California, Sen. Kamala Harris and Rep. Barbara Lee called the investigation’s findings “outrageous” and “disturbing.”
We’ve heard this before, so the question remains if and when lawmakers will take meaningful action on police oversight. (And what the rollback of federal oversight of police departments will mean for systemic failures around rape investigations more broadly.)
End the Backlog, a non-profit program that gets untested rape kits tested and has pushed for laws to do so in 26 states, also added a provision to its model legislation to ensure that kits aren’t egregiously destroyed. It now reads, “kits associated with a reported crime that is uncharged or unsolved should be preserved for 50 years or the length of the statute of limitations, whichever is greater.”
CNN’s investigation exposed just how little many police officers do when it comes to investigating rape cases: There were stories of officers throwing away kits because victims did not want to immediately comply with an investigation—without thinking a victim might want to revisit their case later. Other officers closed investigations after victims did not respond to letters left at their door, while some victims were labeled “uncooperative” for frivolous reasons.
The Springfield, Missouri department that had a standard practice of sending letters to victims, which asked them to respond in 10 days or their cases will be closed, also issued an apology following CNN’s story and the police chief told reporters they would end the practice.
While it’s good to see lawmakers responding to the investigation, the problem is clearly bigger than just passing a law or promising to do better. That many police departments grossly mishandle sexual assault investigations is something of an open secret, and the work to bring accountability for victims never really stops. As Christy Lopez, a former deputy chief in the Special Litigation Section of the Civil Rights Division at the DOJ during the Obama administration, told Splinter last year, these problems—from the destruction of evidence to the mistreatment of victims—require constant vigilance to correct. “These things do tend to be very entrenched,” Lopez says. “They took decades to develop and they’re not going to be corrected overnight.”