HARRISBURG, Pa. (WHTM) – It is a shocking sight across America and across Pennsylvania: shelves in the back rooms of police departments overflowing with sexual assault kits.
They contain evidence that could be used to catch rapists.
But they sit.
In Pennsylvania, there are 3,044 untested rape kits, 1,852 of which have been untested for more than a year. Some of them date back to the 1990’s.
“Can you imagine being a victim of rape in the 1990’s and finding out that that kit had been sitting there untested for all those years?” asked Pennsylvania Auditor General Eugene DePasquale, whose audit revealed the numbers.
Every untested kit means no justice for a victim and possibly a danger to the public.
“When you don’t test the rape kit, that rapist can continue to go out and rape other victims,” DePasquale said, noting there are instances where untested kits were ultimately tested and found to match a suspect who then raped again.
Act 27, a law passed in 2015, requires an accounting of rape kits from every police department in Pennsylvania. Harrisburg police, according to DePasquale, never responded.
“The capital city’s police department that is, I think, less than a mile from the Capitol, wasn’t even aware that Act 27 existed,” DePasquale said.
The audit says state agencies like the Department of Health and Pennsylvania State Police need to do a better job communicating with local police departments. It also notes that the state’s crime labs are overwhelmed.
“These crime labs simply don’t have enough people, equipment or funding,” DePasquale said. He added that a western Pennsylvania lab has nine staffers, the same number it had before DNA testing came into existence and flooded the system with new evidence to be tested.
DePasquale said an officer in the Harrisburg Police Department told his team that department policy is to immediately send all rape kits off to be tested at the lab. That is also illegal per Act 27, which requires the victim’s consent.
Sexual assault evidence must be collected fairly quickly. It’s invasive. But it’s important, advocates say, that victims get final say before the evidence is sent to the lab for testing.
“Many victims need more time to decide whether to engage in a prosecution, whether they want to report to police,” explained Kristen Houser with the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape.
Pressing forward “means that your anonymity goes away. Your friends and family and community may now know what’s going on. So, there’s a lot for victims to consider, whether or not they want to jump into that world. They want some time to figure out what’s best for them and their families,” Houser added.
DePasquale said Harrisburg’s policy of immediately sending kits off to the lab must end immediately.
Ahead of the auditor general’s rebuke, Pennsylvania State Police and the Department of Health announced a partnership promising to focus on untested rape kits.
“The main goal is to just see how big of a problem this is and get some firm numbers so we can work toward a solution on the issue,” state police Corporal Adam Reed said.
Testing rape kits costs between $1,000 and $1,500. There is some federal money available but not enough, according to Representative Brandon Neuman (D-Washington) who sponsored Act 27. He promises to re-visit the law and try to find a more consistent reliable funding stream.