Skoog: Over 1700 untested rape kits unveil rape culture’s past and present

Minnesota is fumbling its way though an issue that it has and continues to grossly undervalue.

by Caroline Skoog

Last Friday Minneapolis police officials announced that they’ve located roughly 1,700 untested rape kits in the department’s backlog that they didn’t know existed. Contrary to a 2015 audit of the department that reported 194 untested kits, an inventory from July 2019 indicates that some kits stem from 30 years ago. It’s likely a lot of these kits hold information that is linked to repeat offenders which would help solve other cases.

Police Chief Medaria Arradondo stated the department doesn’t know what caused the initial miscount.“I can ensure you that it will never happen again,” he concluded in last Friday’s statement at a press conference. To quote most prosecutors reviewing sexual assault cases, I’m just not convinced. 

I’m going to go out on a limb here. This error is either emblematic of a police force that doesn’t prioritize investigating sexual assault or a police force that is grossly inadequate at math and comprised of the three stooges. Best case scenario, it’s a boneheaded mistake and hundreds of rape kits hid between couch cushions and in the pockets of old pants. Realistically, though, the packed backlog reinforces the narrative that the criminal justice system routinely fails sexual assault survivors. This isn’t to say that this was a deliberate massive miscalculation, but the department’s ignorance to the scope of the backlog yields the same results as intentionally concealing it: no justice. 

All of the kits have been properly stored, however, some kits are “restricted,” meaning the victim hasn’t signed a release form authorizing law enforcement to submit the kit to a forensic laboratory. There are many factors that could contribute to a person’s choice to not move forward with the criminal justice process – fear, blame, privacy concerns, the attitudes of health care providers, police, and prosecutors. Reporting sexual assault entails a series of unpleasant barriers with odds stacked against the survivor, and it’s enough to push survivors out of the process before the investigation even starts. 

Lt. Mike Sauro supervised the Minneapolis police sex crimes unit at the time of the 2015 audit. He does not believe there are 1,700 untested kits in the department’s backlog. Disbelief is to be expected though, coming from a man quoted as saying, “If you assigned every case … the real victims would get no justice.” In a separate account he stated, “Sometimes victims have to take responsibility for their decisions and their actions.” He was fired from the police force for excessive use of force but rehired. Now I’m speculating here, but it doesn’t sound like he would be the easiest person to talk to about severe trauma. 

In 2018, Sauro told the Star Tribune that he wouldn’t assign a case to a detective “unless he believed it would succeed at trial.” 

Law enforcement should pursue cases no matter their potential success in trial in order to best support victims whose futures depend on verdicts far outside of their control.

The Minneapolis sex crimes unit has had six different supervisors in 11 years. This obscure turnover rate isn’t helpful in maintaining a routine protocol for handling sexual assault cases. After the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension completed a statewide audit of untested rape kits in 2015, a law was implemented requiring law enforcement to retrieve unrestricted kits within 10 days and submit the kit for testing within 60 days. But in 2016, eight sex crimes detectives investigated 412 cases. One detective for every 52 cases. How can the department follow these guidelines without adequate staffing and resources? 

Submitting a rape kit for testing costs about $1,000. Without the proper funding and resources, overworked investigators could discard certain cases considered unprosecutable. Of 1,000 sexual assault cases in Minnesota reviewed by the Star Tribune last year, 74% of cases weren’t sent to prosecutors. This saves the department money but also impacts prosecution statistics and the department’s clearance rate.

Perhaps if there was something for authorities to gain from convicting rapists, more resources would be delegated to the sex crimes unit. Unlike drug-related investigations or crime involving property, there’s no civil asset forfeiture (CAF) in solving a rape case. CAF enables the government to seize property connected to criminal activity, such as vehicles in DUI cases. Property acquired by authorities can be used to satiate their budget. Last year, Minnesota raked in $11 million from CAF seizures. Civil Asset Forfeiture is profitable. Investigating rape is not. 

The miscount is disheartening but not surprising. It just illustrates what many of us already know. Rape culture is omnipresent and palpable. More than forgiving celebrities’ predatory behaviors, individual toxic masculinity and victim-blaming views, rape culture lives in the policies that construct our society and the bureaus meant to protect us. Maybe they shouldn’t be doing the counting themselves.