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Rape kit audit delay attributed to confusion over process

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Danielle Tudor, left, talks with Sen. Kay Floyd at the state Capitol. Tudor is a rape survivor and a member of the Sexual Assault Forensic Evidence Task Force. [The Oklahoman archives]

Danielle Tudor, left, talks with Sen. Kay Floyd at the state Capitol. Tudor is a rape survivor and a member of the Sexual Assault Forensic Evidence Task Force. [The Oklahoman archives]

About 120 law enforcement agencies across the state have not responded to a directive from the governor to audit their evidence rooms and report their number of untested rape kits. In some cases, the reporting process has been fraught with confusion.

More than a year has passed since Gov. Mary Fallin announced the audit directive, and more than 15 weeks have passed since an extended deadline the governor set for law enforcement agencies to respond.

Facing a looming deadline of July 1 to complete a final report, the Sexual Assault Forensic Evidence (SAFE) Task Force, a multidisciplinary group that is working to make recommendations based on the results of the statewide audit, had set May 31 as the cutoff date for agencies to report back.

A total of 312 law enforcement agencies in Oklahoma had reported 7,270 untested rape kits as of that cutoff date.

After a sexual assault, a victim can undergo a forensic exam to collect any DNA evidence left behind from the assault. The doctor or nurse who conducts the exam preserves the evidence in a sexual assault evidence collection kit, commonly known as a rape kit.

The untested rape kits law enforcement agencies have identified were not tested for a variety of reasons. During recent years, there have been pushes in other states to determine the number of untested rape kits and pursue reforms. Testing rape kits can yield valuable DNA evidence that can help identify serial offenders and bolster prosecutions. It also sends a message to survivors that they matter and a message to perpetrators that they will be held accountable.

After the task force's last meeting, The Oklahoman contacted more than half a dozen law enforcement agencies from different parts of the state that hadn't reported back to ask why they hadn't responded to the executive order. Based on their responses and responses from other agencies that were listed as noncompliant in the past, there seems to be confusion with the reporting process.

Representatives from several police departments were surprised to learn their agencies were listed as being noncompliant, saying they had reported back. One police chief in northeastern Oklahoma said his agency was still working to compile the necessary information. Another said he was unaware of the directive until contacted by a reporter last month, despite that a member of the task force visited his agency in April to discuss the audit directive.

A sheriff in southwestern Oklahoma also said he had not heard of the audit directive, saying he took over as sheriff in February and he didn't recall receiving any notices since then. A detective from a police department in eastern Oklahoma said he tried a couple of times to get in touch with someone from the attorney general's office but never heard back, although a spokesman for the attorney general's office said a staff member reached out to the detective by email last month and got no response.

Melissa Blanton, chairwoman of the SAFE Task Force and chief of the Victim Services Unit at the Oklahoma Attorney General's Office, said the office has received a number of phone calls and emails from law enforcement agencies who had questions about the audit. She said the office has worked directly with the agencies to provide additional information or help them fill out the necessary form.

"We've received calls from people about how to respond," she said. "If there's been confusion on the part of others, I'm really not aware of it."

On Friday, Danielle Tudor, the only member of the task force identified as a rape survivor, issued a news release criticizing the attorney general for refusing to support or enforce the audit and expressing frustration with treatment she has received. Tudor said Attorney General Mike Hunter did not respond to repeated requests to meet with her.

"In my almost 10 years of rape survivor advocacy, having changed seven laws in the state of Oregon and accomplishing complete rape kit reform there, I have never seen such an attempt by a public official to silence a crime victim," Tudor stated. "It has become clear to me that the Attorney General's office simply wished to control me and keep me quiet so their lack of support and enforcement could continue unquestioned and uninterrupted."

Hunter issued a statement saying he supports the mission of the governor's task force and Tudor "seems not to fully understand the role of the attorney general's office on the task force."

Although the Victim Services Unit chief agreed to chair the task force, Hunter said his office has no other roles or responsibilities in enforcing the compliance of law enforcement agencies.

Staff at the attorney general's office and other officials have taken several steps to notify law enforcement agencies about the audit and to follow up with unresponsive agencies.

Fallin announced the executive order in April 2017. Five months later, the attorney general's office, which is compiling the audit results, mailed a letter to all law enforcement agencies notifying them about the audit directive. In mid-December, shortly before the initial deadline of Dec. 30, 2017, the attorney general's office mailed a letter to police chiefs and sheriffs.

In mid-January 2018, the governor announced a deadline extension because many agencies missed her initial deadline, and the Oklahoma Association of Chiefs of Police sent an email to law enforcement agencies. In late March or early April, the association again sent an email to law enforcement agencies that had not responded.

The Oklahoma Sheriffs' Association and the Oklahoma Association of Chiefs of Police were tasked with sending out additional correspondence as well, said Alex Gerszewski, press secretary for Attorney General Hunter.

"We're trying very, very hard to get everybody in compliance to move forward with the best data available to make the very best recommendations for the state moving forward," Gerszewski said.

'I'm at a loss'

Still, some law enforcement officials told The Oklahoman they had not heard of the audit directive.

"This is something that I'm not totally aware of right now," said Leslie Orr, sheriff of Harmon County. Orr said he took over as sheriff several months ago, and he didn't recall receiving any notification since then.

Okmulgee Police Chief Joe Prentice also didn't recall receiving notifications about the audit directive.

"I'm at a loss," he said when contacted by a reporter on May 18. "I don't recall ever receiving any kind of notice about rape kits."

Prentice said he would have a staff member contact the attorney general's office to find out what his agency needed to submit. "We'll get them whatever information they need and try to figure out where the ball got dropped," he said.

Later that day, his agency had reported its information to the attorney general's office. Prentice said he had learned that a member of the Sexual Assault Forensic Evidence Task Force had recently talked to the police department's evidence custodian about the audit.

Prentice said his evidence custodian had not responded earlier because he didn't think it was necessary since the police department didn't have any kits that had not been submitted for testing.

When contacted by The Oklahoman, representatives from several agencies that were listed as being noncompliant said they had reported their information.

Tracy Jackson, assistant chief of the Ada Police Department, said he reported his agency's number of untested kits to a representative from the attorney general's office in mid-February. Ada was still listed as being noncompliant during the task force's last meeting on May 10.

"They've had our information for a while," Jackson told The Oklahoman May 18.

The Ada Police Department had 63 untested kits dating back to 2001, Jackson said.

When he submitted his department's information, a representative from the attorney general's office asked him to provide the reasons why each kit was not tested, Jackson said. He said he didn't provide that information because it wasn't a requirement of the governor's executive order and he didn't have that information documented individually.

Fallin's executive order states that agencies may, but are not required to, disclose their reasons for not submitting the kits to a lab for analysis.

Gerszewski, press secretary for the attorney general, said the issue stemmed from "a bit of confusion on our end," but the situation has been remedied and Ada is compliant.

Justin Earls, police chief in Beaver, a Panhandle town of about 1,400 residents, thought his agency was in compliance with the audit directive. Earls said someone from the Guthrie Police Department contacted him about the audit six weeks to two months ago and he informed her that his agency didn't have any untested rape kits.

"Whenever I reported back there, I assumed that we would be in compliance with that," he said.

Even agencies that have no untested kits are required to submit a designated form to the attorney general's office.

'Not necessarily a priority'

Some agencies were aware of the audit but unable to complete it in time.

Nate King, police chief in Tahlequah, said his agency hopes to be finished with the audit by July 1. Much of the department's older evidence is kept in storage pods, and staff are still working to go through the contents of those pods, King said.

The police department moved into a new building about two years ago, King said. When they cleaned out the evidence room at the old department, evidence was divided between more recent cases that were still pending and older cases or cases that were no longer active.

"Honestly, going through the old evidence was not necessarily a priority at that time when we moved in and so then we got caught unprepared when the mandate came down for the audit and it's been a mess trying to get those pods inventoried or audited," King said.

Tudor, the task force member who is a rape survivor, has expressed frustration that so many agencies have not responded to the audit directive. Ignoring repeated requests to comply is disrespectful to sexual assault victims, she has said.

King said his agency's tardy response is not because the police department doesn't care. Many departments across the state are on the brink of being understaffed and undermanned, King said. His department, which has 22 officers on patrol, responds to an average of about 3,500 calls a month, he said.

"We're still having to deal with the search warrants, the current sexual assaults that are coming to our office every day, property crime and all of that," King said. " ... This was, I'm sure, a daunting task for several agencies. Finding that balance between being able to conduct (the audit) and handle the calls for service that we have every day has been a challenge for us. And I apologize to anyone who feels like we do not care. It's not that we don't care. We are working on it."

It's unclear whether the agencies that haven't responded will face any consequences for failing to report, although it seems unlikely at this point.

After the February deadline, Andrea Swiech, a task force member who works for the OSBI, said any consequences would be up to the governor and what actions she wanted to take for anyone who didn't meet the deadlines she set.

"Our group doesn't have any authority to go in and implement any corrective actions or any disciplinary actions," Swiech said at the time.

Asked about the matter last week, Blanton, the task force chairwoman who works for the attorney general's office, also deferred to the governor's office on the question of whether nonresponsive agencies would face consequences.

"As far as this office is concerned, this is the governor's task force," Blanton said. "We've been asked to chair the task force and so in that sense there may be a little bit of leadership from this agency and it's highly important to us, but we really don't have any kind of authority to ... enforce the audit in any way."

Loss of funding

When Fallin announced the deadline extension in January, she said law enforcement agencies that failed to comply by Feb. 15 would "risk losing federal grant money that is administered by state agencies."

"We've been talking about and exploring if there are any type of things that we could look at as far as federal grant money with these entities and discussing that with the entities that receive the federal money," Fallin said during a recent interview, but added that she doesn't receive that money, so that would be up to the agencies that do.

Fallin said she doesn't have any direct authority over the local law enforcement agencies but she can use her "bully pulpit to highlight the issue and hopefully encourage them to do the right thing."

Asked about the January threat, Fallin said the Oklahoma Attorney General's Office and the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation receive some federal grant money that they administer for specific purposes. If local law enforcement agencies receive money that's supposed to be used for processing evidence but they aren't processing evidence, there may be some repercussions that the administrative agencies of the grants could take to those local officials, Fallin said.

When asked if there was a specific grant or pot of money she was referencing, Fallin said: "I don't know off the top of my head. It's just my understanding that they do get some money."

Gerszewski, press secretary for the attorney general, said the attorney general's office does not receive any federal grant funds that it administers to local law enforcement agencies.

Steve Tanner, an assistant special agent in charge with the OSBI, said Thursday that the governor has not approached the OSBI about withholding any type of federal funds from any agencies that have not complied with her order.

Secretary of State James Williamson, who has served as Fallin's general counsel, said the governor's office hasn't asked the OSBI or the Attorney General's Office to withhold funds from noncompliant agencies.

"We haven't purposely pushed that as an alternative yet," Williamson said. "We can contact them and ask them for a list of all their federal grants and there's things we can do if we want to take it to that extreme, but the governor hasn't asked anybody to do that yet because we're still hoping they'll do the right thing for the right reason."

Williamson said they would first have to determine whether the cities that haven't reported have any federal money coming to them.

"If they don't, it is an empty threat to them," he said.

Williamson said people in the community will be "the ultimate motivator" for agencies to report.

"That city police chief is appointed by the local city council or mayor and if they find out that they're not responding, then they should put pressure on their chief of police to respond," he said.

The task force has until July 1 to submit a final report of its recommendations to the governor and state legislative leaders.

Related Photos
Danielle Tudor is a member of the Sexual Assault Forensic Evidence Task Force. [Photo provided]

Danielle Tudor is a member of the Sexual Assault Forensic Evidence Task Force. [Photo provided]

<figure><img src="//cdn2.newsok.biz/cache/r960-d616e399804dd22846d12b426b241be9.jpg" alt="Photo - Danielle Tudor is a member of the Sexual Assault Forensic Evidence Task Force. [Photo provided]" title="Danielle Tudor is a member of the Sexual Assault Forensic Evidence Task Force. [Photo provided]"><figcaption>Danielle Tudor is a member of the Sexual Assault Forensic Evidence Task Force. [Photo provided]</figcaption></figure><figure><img src="//cdn2.newsok.biz/cache/r960-455b2c6526aa9a6709cb4e82c0907143.jpg" alt="Photo - Danielle Tudor, left, talks with Sen. Kay Floyd at the state Capitol. Tudor is a rape survivor and a member of the Sexual Assault Forensic Evidence Task Force. [The Oklahoman archives] " title=" Danielle Tudor, left, talks with Sen. Kay Floyd at the state Capitol. Tudor is a rape survivor and a member of the Sexual Assault Forensic Evidence Task Force. [The Oklahoman archives] "><figcaption> Danielle Tudor, left, talks with Sen. Kay Floyd at the state Capitol. Tudor is a rape survivor and a member of the Sexual Assault Forensic Evidence Task Force. [The Oklahoman archives] </figcaption></figure>
Darla Slipke

Darla Slipke is an enterprise reporter for The Oklahoman. She is a native of Bristol, Conn., and a graduate of the University of Kansas. Slipke worked for newspapers in Kansas, Connecticut,... Read more ›

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