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 Jan 25 - 31, 2018 
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News Feature

Testing the Backlog

Under Keller, rape kits to be processed

By

There are thousands of untested rape kits in Albuquerque
There are thousands of untested rape kits in Albuquerque
Affinity Magazine
In 2016, the New Mexico State Auditors office conducted an audit. At the time of this investigation, Tim Keller was at the helm of that office, assisted in his investigative pursuits by Sarita Nair, whom the new mayor brought into his nascent administration in December. In any case, the audit turned up shocking news: Thousands of rape kits, used to gather evidence in sexual assault claims by citizens, remained untested, residing in various storage spaces in various municipalities around the state.

Further, the auditor’s inquiry revealed that 74 percent of the untested kits are from Bernalillo county. As of Nov. 2016, 3,948 rape kits in city evidence rooms remain untested; some date back as far as 1988. Taken altogether the kits represent more than 5,302 statewide, serious transgressions that might be linked to specific perpetrators, if only the kits were tested.

Myriad reasons were given for the shameful backlog: many police jurisdictions lack specific policies governing the testing of these kits by medical professionals. Additionally, many local police forces have not had dedicated resources to manage, appraise and document kit results; this is often the result of a police force that de-prioritizes the investigation of rape cases because of a lack of personnel and proper training.

End the Backlog, a nonprofit organization that is calling for a nationwide end to rape kit testing backlogs claims that American cultural attitudes about rape, including victim blaming and sheer disbelief of victims by investigators has only made the problem worse. Speaking to the press in the immediate aftermath of the original audit, Nair told the Associated Press, “When we see a kit on a shelf and the reason is a lack of perceived victim credibility, we’re just sort of reinforcing those worst fears and we’re discouraging people from coming forward—and that just has to stop.”

In Albuquerque, at least, all of that is about to change under new Mayor (and former State Auditor) Tim Keller.

An Executive Order

Late last Wednesday morning, Keller—whose tenure as auditor first came to grips with the backlog nearly two years ago—armed himself with an executive order and met with his constituents to discuss his plan to clear the backlog while also implementing a system that will by its nature take a more sustained and serious look at sexual assault in the metropolitan area.

Mayor Tim Keller
Mayor Tim Keller
NM Political Report

Essentially, Keller’s executive order focuses on the announcement of the creation of a task force, the Albuquerque Sexual Assault Evidence Response Team (ASERT) to create a comprehensive plan to address the backlog. By executive order, APD is tasked with cooperating with the task force. The first installment of the plan is due on March 15 when ASERT members are to submit an official plan—that includes documentation of funding requirements, including the use of federal grants and outside vendors, as well as a clear process to ensure that new backlog does not develop ever again—to the mayor’s office.

What It Will Take

Last year, while revelations about other city expenditures made the news, the Berry administration announced that $200,000 was being set aside to handle the backlog. The report back from the auditor in this matter said testing would cost up to $7 million.

Then Berry reported that the city was eligible for and had been selected by the feds to receive an approximately $2.5 million grant to begin a testing program. Recent media reports say the city hasn’t been awarded the money; it’s on hold with the rest of the federal budget, apparently. But that hasn’t kept Keller and company from providing guidance for the huge project’s financial aspect.

Each kit will cost $600 to $1000 to process. The total, revised cost in this view of the issue stands at around $4 million; money that Keller says is “an affordable item. … It’s achievable, which is rare for some of these issues.”

Another issue that will be addressed is lack of trained laboratory personnel necessary to professionally process such a large number of specimens, some of which are decades old. At Keller’s press conference last week, members of the medical practitioner network Sexual Assault Nurse Examiners (SANE) told reporters that this problem is in the process of being solved.

Apparently, according to SANE city of Albuquerque Director Teresa D’Anza, the city has been budgeted for 10 lab technicians trained to process the kits, but until 6 months ago, only 3 of those positions were actually filled. Although the new hires have joined the test team, they are still being brought up to speed. Once this goal is accomplished, it is believed that test completion rates will substantially improve.

Finally, Keller’s executive order understands the underlying problem—that lack of completion for such ostensibly important kits has implications for criminality and criminal activity. Underfunding or lack of vigorous investigation practices is wrong and leads to more crime. If cultural bias was involved in such policing decisions, it will not be moving forward. Correcting this problem certainly means less crime and will benefit the community in many ways.

The effort will require money, and more importantly an urgent cultural sea change. It will take vigilance and time to overcome rape culture; Keller and company’s order is an affirmative step in that direction.


 
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