Despite the emergence of the MeToo movement and a national conversation about consent, sexual violence, and rape in particular, remain tragically underreported, so much that it’s considered to be the most underreported of all violent crimes.
Survivors express a number of legitimate concerns for not reporting sexual violence, including fear of reprisal, not being believed, and insecurity. But also among these concerns is a tragic, but understandable belief that their experience would not be important enough to law enforcement, a feeling that the officers would not believe them or do anything to help.
These concerns are regrettably valid, as we have seen law enforcement organizations throughout the country failing to properly test outstanding rape kits in a timely manner, resulting in a giant backlog. These rape kits, formally known as sexual assault forensic exams, are an intrusive but unfortunately necessary collection of DNA evidence that takes place soon after an assault.
Once the evidence is placed in a rape evidence kit after a painful procedure, the sexual assault survivor, like a victim of any other crime, envisions their traumatizing experience to be prioritized immediately. In theory, the evidence is rushed to a forensic lab where the DNA collected can be and the data is uploaded to an FBI databank so that law enforcement can cross-reference the DNA they have in their system to hopefully find a match and track down the rapist.
However, as we have seen in recent years as sexual violence is taken more seriously nationwide, this is often not the case. Sometimes, for whatever reason, law enforcement officials don’t complete this critical testing, leaving hundreds of untested rape kits in storage facilities.
These significant backlogs are completely disrespectful to the remarkable courage of the victims who undertaken this incredibly painful testing, not to mention their traumatic assault.
Frequently, this inaction on the part of law enforcement ultimately ruins the evidence collected. With no discernible timeline for testing, the statute of limitations for prosecuting sexual violence expires, ending hopes of healing for both the victim and their loved ones, and potentially enabling more sexual violence through their inaction.
Unfortunately, this has been a consistent area of neglect for one of the candidates for Los Angeles County District Attorney. In both Mesa, Arizona and San Francisco, the police departments under the leadership of George Gascón routinely failed to bring justice to many of their victims.
Of the 369 rape kits submitted during Gascón’s three-year tenure as Chief of Police in Mesa, only about half were passed on to a lab during the same time-frame. And in San Francisco, it was only after Gascón left his post as Chief of Police in 2011 that the department began to clear its backlog. In 2013, researchers found that 753 rape kits going back 10 years had never been tested.
In fact, the San Francisco Police Department had no records for rape kits submitted and processed during Gascón’s time as Chief of the department. Zero. During his time in charge of San Francisco’s Police Department, Gascón did not mandate that kits be tracked within the crime lab, instead letting them pile up in storage.
When a city fails to prioritize sexual violence and rape, as seen under George Gascón’s leadership, it further traumatizes and stigmatizes an already marginalized individual, lowering the chance that survivors will work with the police to report their crime, and potentially enabling the assailants to repeat their heinous crime.
On the other hand, Los Angeles County has correctly prioritized this issue, with no backlog of rape kits.
It goes without saying that these rape kits should have never sat idly in a storage facility and instead should have been tested in a timely matter. George Gascón’s failure to even attempt to help victims of sexual violence find justice and healing is a glaring and unforgivable decision as he attempts to lead the largest prosecutor’s office in the country.
Every sexual assault survivor deserves to have their tragedy be seen and taken seriously, and we must hold leaders accountable for routinely ignoring them.