On Nov. 4, the Durham Police Department secured $1 million from the federal government to help clear the city’s sexual assault kit backlog.
In a unanimous vote, the City Council approved the Sexual Assault Kit Initiative grant. Since 2015, SAKI grants have been used to fund overburdened crime labs, test over 47,000 sexual assault kits across 35 states, and even help catch one of the deadliest serial killers in U.S. history.
Now, the Durham Police Department will use the grant to tackle its backlog of 1,711 sexual assault kits — the most of any jurisdiction across North Carolina.
In 2017, the North Carolina State Crime Lab began counting all untested sexual assault kits across the state, joining 36 other states that had audited their inventories. It discovered the largest backlog of any state in the country: 15,160 untested kits.
Nowhere in North Carolina was the problem larger than in Durham, where police found 1,711 kits from assaults dating back as far as 1988.
“It came as a shock that Durham had so many,” said Charlene Reiss, the Sexual Assault Response Team coordinator at the Durham Crisis Response Center.
The State Crime Lab noted that some of those untested kits may have been resolved in court or marked as “unfounded,” which means that police believed a crime didn’t occur. The rest of the kits — those that were never given a reason for remaining on the shelf — are marked as “other”.
Not only did Durham police find the largest backlog of untested kits, but they also harbored one of the largest portions of “other” kits — those that remained untested for no given reason.
Why, especially in a city as progressive as Durham, did sexual assault kits pile up?
Some factors were outside their control, police wrote in the 2018 SAKI grant application. The State Crime Lab changed their policies about which sexual assault kits were eligible to be tested, causing confusion among officers. And some of the kits in Durham police’s possession were connected to cases already resolved in court.
But police also found that some investigators didn’t know a sexual assault kit could be submitted. Other officers “overlooked sending it,” according to the grant application.
Those familiar with the backlog hesitate to blame police. “There are definitely things that fell through the cracks,” Reiss said. “But for many years, the State Crime Lab was so backed up that it took years to get results back.”
That’s when the State Crime Lab asked police jurisdictions to stop sending consent cases, or cases where both parties admit that sex did occur, according to Reiss.
“Testing that kit wouldn’t help in that particular case,” Reiss said. “In those situations, it doesn’t come down to proving whether or not sex happened; it comes down to proving consent. So a lot of things on the shelf in Durham were consent cases, and they were told not to send those.”
Now, as part of the effort to clear North Carolina’s backlog, the lab is asking police to send all their untested kits. Durham, with the support of its SAKI grant, is beginning to do that.
Durham police, prosecutors, and victim advocates agree that to tackle a backlog this large, they need help.
“Our office is already understaffed,” said Kendra Montgomery-Blinn, an Assistant District Attorney. “Right now, the older cases that are coming through — we’re just adding them on top of our duties. It’s too much.”
Each sexual assault kit costs about $700 to test, according to the North Carolina Attorney General’s office. With Durham’s 1,711 kits, that puts the cost of testing the backlog at nearly $1.2 million.
But that estimate doesn’t include the cost of the investigative work that often happens after testing.
“With such a large backlog … the DPD does not have the resources to investigate these backlogged cases and also focus on current cases,” the SAKI grant application says.
That’s why Durham police are using the grant to create a new investigative team: the Cold Case Unit.
The Cold Case Unit will have two full-time investigators dedicated to reopening sexual assault cases and a bilingual witness assistant to support victims through the justice system.
SAKI grant money is also going to the Durham Crisis Response Center, which will fund a new advocate to assist with calling victims. The District Attorney’s office will also hire a full-time prosecutor to bring cold case sexual assaults to trial.
District Attorney Satana Deberry is ready to reprioritize sexual assault in her office.
“Part of the reason that sexual assault is underreported is because people don’t feel comfortable coming to the justice system,” Deberry said. “It’s important for us to signal to the community that we take these things seriously.”
“We spend a lot of time talking about the violence in our community, but often we don’t talk about the violence against women and children,” she added.
The District Attorney’s office is now prosecuting three cold cases in which sexual assault kits were tested after years of sitting in the backlog. With the new hires from the SAKI grant, they expect more charges to come and a new energy behind the process.
“I think everybody in Durham was surprised when they did the inventory,” Reiss said. “But things have changed.”
Deberry agreed. “Now we’re cleaning up what this system may have let sit for a while.”