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Law enforcement pushes new protocols for testing rape kits

April 13, 2020 GMT

ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — Minnesota law enforcement officials called on lawmakers Monday to do more to protect victims of sexual assault by creating a centralized storage system for rape kits and establishing clear protocols for testing.

Ramsey County Attorney John Choi and others held a video news conference to push lawmakers to pass legislation that would create a storage system at the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension and allow for consistent tracking of rape kits. The goal is to standardize the handling of sexual assault evidence, after continued backlogs have left hundreds of rape kits sitting in police storage untested.

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“Our commitment to a victim-centered response and to hold perpetrators accountable breaks down when we fail to provide a consistent and trackable process for testing and storing rape kits on a local and statewide basis,” Choi said in a statement. He added that all the work that goes into bringing justice for victims is undermined when a rape kit goes unaccounted for or is inadvertently destroyed.

A 2015 audit revealed that 3,482 untested rape kits were found in police storage across the state. In November, Minneapolis police found an additional 1,700 untested rape kits.

Current law ensures authorities process exam kits only in cases where victims report the assault and agree to have the kit tested. The Star Tribune reported that the bill introduced last month deals with the testing of rape kits in cases where victims don’t want to report their assault to police. These “restricted” kits would be submitted directly to the BCA, which would keep the evidence for at least 2 1/2 years.

Victims sometimes change their mind about reporting a rape after time has passed, officials said. If those tests are thrown out in the meantime, victims can be further traumatized.

“What this does is preserve their choice,” said Ellen Johnson, supervisor of the Regions Hospital Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner program. “It’s very victim-centered if the kit is held onto.”

The proposal would also require Department of Public Safety Commissioner John Harrington to create an online tracking system that provides victims real-time information on the status of individual rape kits — like those used in Iowa, Michigan and Idaho.

The searchable database would be a large step toward transparency and keep victims better informed, said Jude Foster with the state Coalition Against Sexual Assault.

The bill’s fate is uncertain, as lawmakers have been dealing with the state’s response to the coronavirus pandemic.