Police Department to review destroyed rape kits after investigation

Springfield, Missouri, responds to advocacy group

By CNN'S SERGIO HERNANDEZ AND SONAM VASHI CONTRIBUTED TO THIS REPORT.
CNN

(CNN) - The police chief in Springfield, Missouri, on Thursday told a rape victim advocacy group that the department will review sex crimes cases in which the agency destroyed rape kits.

Chief Paul Williams' pledge to Me Too Springfield came two weeks after he apologized to sexual assault victims and invited them to contact him if they felt their cases were mishandled.

His gesture was in response to a national CNN investigation into rape kit destruction. The chief said the department's review will focus on the 108 rape kits that CNN identified as being destroyed since 2010 before a statute of limitation expired or when there was no time limit to prosecute. Seventy-five percent of those kits, tied to cases reported as recently as 2014, were never submitted to a lab to be tested for DNA, CNN found.

Springfield Police stood out from other agencies for the variety and volume of investigative shortcomings that led to kit destruction and how quickly rape kits were destroyed. Dozens of untested kits were destroyed in a year or less after victims reported being assaulted, according to department records.

Experts who reviewed Springfield case files at CNN's request called practices they saw in its investigations "disturbing." The police imposed 10-day deadlines on victims shortly after they reported being assaulted. If victims did not respond in time, their cases were closed and their kits destroyed while prosecutions were still viable. The police also gave victims waivers declining their option to prosecute before thorough investigations had been conducted, a tactic that effectively ended cases.

Outraged by revelations in CNN's investigation, the grassroots organization asked for the meeting with Williams so he could respond to their questions and requests. Police declined to open the discussion to journalists.

In their meeting, Me Too members said they asked the chief to notify every victim whose kit was trashed and reopen those cases if possible.

Williams rejected that idea, according to Sarah Bargo, Me Too's secretary, because the chief said he feared that contacting victims risked re-traumatizing them.

Williams told Me Too that he is working with The Victim Center, Springfield's primary rape advocacy group, to use the center's hotline -- 417-864-SAFE -- as a way for victims to ask questions about their cases or rape kits.

Victim Center director Brandi Bartel told CNN that the plan is in its early stages. Victims who call the line could give the center permission to pass their questions to police. Bartel expects that the police department would then contact the victim directly.

"I want to be helpful," she said. "But I want to be clear -- we are not law enforcement. We are not attorneys."

Since CNN's story published, one victim whose case is currently being investigated has contacted the department to learn the status of the rape kit, according to written answers police gave to Me Too and provided to CNN. Two other victims have told police they feel their cases were mishandled.

The department declined to discuss those cases, citing the victims' privacy.

Me Too members asked Williams if he would consider bringing in outside experts to review the department's current sex crimes investigations. Such reviews are considered best practice in policing.

Williams told the group that he's reaching out to an organization that may be able to "spot check" Springfield's sex crimes cases, Me Too vice president Kelsey Nichol told CNN.

Williams said the agency has stopped imposing 10-day deadlines on sex crime victims or giving them prosecution declination waivers.

Read more about how CNN reported its investigation

Me Too also asked Williams about the department's backlog of untested kits. Williams had previously told the group that he ordered a review of all kits in 2014 and found that the agency had more than 300 on hand. Williams told Me Too that police had reduced the number of untested kits to 237 and expected to finish testing the rest within two years.

Me Too members told CNN they wanted more information about the state's intention to establish a system to track rape kits as they make their way from police to a lab for testing. Williams told them that discussions about that will begin after the first of the year.

In a statement to CNN, the Missouri Attorney General's Office said that Attorney General Josh Hawley "hopes grant funding will allow Missouri to test existing kits and establish statewide protocols that will prevent any kit from going untested in the future."

Members left the meeting feeling good, they said.

"I went into the meeting feeling apprehensive," Nichol said. "But it went very well. We felt heard by the department."

Read "The rape files" flawed investigations

Elsewhere, a police chief in Lapeer, Michigan, who apologized for his department's destruction of rape kits, told CNN on Thursday that he's taken several steps since the story appeared to improve his agency's handling of cases. David Frisch said he's created a policy specific to sexual assault investigation, updated the department's evidence policy and gotten members of the department training on sexual assault.

Meanwhile, the attorney general in Washington state said he would notify every law enforcement agency in his state and direct them to ensure that rape kits are not being inappropriately destroyed.

In New York, a spokeswoman for Gov. Andrew Cuomo called the destruction of kits by a police department in his state "disturbing." The governor has directed state police to contact the agency and ensure it is "complying with state law regarding the handling of rape kits," spokeswoman Dani Lever said in a statement.

In Georgia, state Rep. Scott Holcomb told CNN that its investigation prompted him to begin writing legislation to introduce next session that would outlaw destruction of rape kits before the statute of limitations expires.

And, national nonprofit organization the Joyful Heart foundation took action. Its program End the Backlog is credited with persuading state lawmakers across the nation to enact laws requiring the testing of rape kits. Days after CNN's investigation, it updated its model legislation to include a provision stating, "Kits associated with a reported crime that is uncharged or unsolved should be preserved for 50 years or the length of the statute of limitations, whichever is greater."

CNN's investigation "shined a bright light on a largely unknown" problem, said Ilse Knecht, the Joyful Heart foundation's director of policy and advocacy.

"You can't say all kits should be tested if kits are destroyed."

Actress Mariska Hargitay: Rape kit destruction shows "shameful level of disregard"

The-CNN-Wire ™ & © 2019 Cable News Network, Inc., a Time Warner Company. All rights reserved.