Jessica Ripley was raped in a parking garage in Salt Lake City, Utah. Upon her arrival at the hospital, a rape kit was performed and police were contacted. When the responding officer interviewed Ripley, he alluded several times to the fact that she was intoxicated and should not have been somewhere the officer “would never allow his daughter to go.” Despite the evidence gathered in her rape kit, no advancements were ever made in Ripley’s case.
Some two years following her rape, Ripley attended a Salt Lake City council meeting and discovered that it was not only her case that had been brushed aside. Approximately 79% of SLCPD’s rape kits had never been sent to the lab for testing. Ripley’s kit was one of over 1,000 collected by the SLCPD in an eight year period – of these, 788 were either destroyed or still sitting on a shelf in the police department. Salt Lake City’s unprocessed rape kits make up only a small portion of the number across the United States – which, according to a January 2014 White House report total well over 20,000.
Emily Homrok, “How Often Do Rape Kits Go Unprocessed?”Truthout, October 3, 2014 http://www.truth-out.org/news/item/26561-how-often-do-rape-kits-go-unprocessed
Student Researcher: Jessika Bales, Indian River State College
Faculty Evaluator: Jared Kinggard, Ph.D., Indian River State College
A rape kit, which is taken by a medical professional following a sexual assault, provides police with an array of possible evidence to be used in the capture and prosecution of a rapist. The procedure can be violating, especially for someone who has just survived a sexual assault. Fluid samples, hair and photographs are taken and an interview is performed, during which a survivor must relive their attack. The victims who choose to go through this process do so in hopes of bringing their attacker to justice. Once the kit is in the hands of police, it becomes their duty to utilize the evidence to deliver justice. In the cases of over 20,000 rape victims, police are failing in their duty to protect and serve.
An ethical issue arises when police fail to pursue justice, especially when they hold the means to possibly do so. Police rely on the respect, trust, and cooperation of the population in order to protect and serve. If police continue to allow sexual assaults to slide by without investigation, what message does that send to not only the victims, but the perpetrators? Police are not morally completing their duty to protect and seek justice for these victims.
In addition, police require the cooperation of rape victims in order to do their duties; they require the evidence contained in a rape kit in order to apprehend rapists. In order for police to identify rapists it is necessary that a rape kit be administered. Since it is unlikely a victim will choose to endure the violating procedure of a rape kit collection if they do not trust police to use the collected evidence, then it follows that the ability for police to apprehend rapists is directly inhibited when victims believe the rape kit will not be sent off for testing. Thus, it is imperative that the police follow through with the rape kit procedure.
Another issue clearly raised in Ripley’s case was the officer engaging in ‘victim-blaming’ – instead of treating Ripley like an innocent victim, he sought out reasons to blame her for the rape. Even criminals are considered innocent until proven guilty by our justice system; no victim need endure criticism from the police during a traumatic time. Victim-blaming has become commonly heard within our society, including assertions that women are ‘asking’ to be raped by being drunk or wearing skimpy clothes. Police officers must be held to a higher standard; they must be impartial in their line of duty and cannot discriminate based upon appearance, sex, gender identity, or any other factors. Not only does victim-blaming lessen public trust of the police force, according to the White House report entitled Rape and Sexual Assault: A Renewed Call to Action, it has also been linked to an increase in the severity of PTSD in rape victims. This violates a Utilitarian perspective of morality, as the severity of pain in the victim overrides any pleasure an officer may attain from the act of victim-blaming.
How do police departments respond when questioned regarding their backlog of rape kits? Some assert the costs of testing every kit are too high; others claim their labs are too backed up. Oakland Police Department stated, “It was not a priority for the OPD.” San Diego PD reported, “. . . it had stopped counting (their untested kits) to meet other priorities.” However, according to the same White House report, the government realizes there is a problem with such large numbers of overlooked and unprocessed rape kits. In one specific attempt to correct this issue the government provided funding for the Detroit Police Department to test all of its backlogged kits. Preliminary results showed that of the 569 tested kits, 32 serial offenders were identified and five prosecutions initiated. These results prove that the evidence lying in these thousands of rape kits can truly be used to apprehend rapists. Responsibility rests on police departments across the country to step up and utilize the tools already in their possession to deliver justice.