Law enforcement agencies across the state were asked to compile and report information about their processes for analyzing sexual assault forensic evidence kits by Governor Mary Fallin back in April 2017.
Along with an examination of the process, agencies were asked to identify untested evidence kits in the possession of each agency. The task force was instructed to identify improvements for training and response to sexual assault by law enforcement. Other issues included possible procedures and legislation concerning victim rights, eliminating the backlog of evidence, and pursuit of funding to improve efficiency and provide additional information such as victim rights and notification.
According to the US Bureau of Justice Statistics’ 2008 Census of State and Local Law Enforcement Agencies, the state had 481 law enforcement agencies employing 8,639 sworn police officers, which is about 237 for each 100,000 residents of the state at that time. The initial deadline of December 30, 2017 was extended due to only 60 percent of sheriff’s offices and less than half of police departments responding. A new deadline of February 15 was set, but as of February 23, 2018, only 208 city and local law enforcement agencies and 64 sheriff’s offices had responded to the request for audits. The total number of untested sexual assault kits at that time totaled 6,954 in the state.
Some agencies, including the Ardmore Police Department, have reported additional numbers since then, raising that number.
As of Monday, March 19, Ardmore Police Deputy Chief Kevin Norris reported 41 untested evidence kits. These untested kits were broken down by reason for not being tested from 2007 to present.
Of the 41, one is waiting to be hand-delivered to OSBI, two are from 2013-2014 — one is awaiting disposition after charges were filed with the district attorney and one case involves a victim that was killed in an unrelated case.
The remaining kits were false reports (4), refusal to cooperate by the victim (10), victim declined to prosecute (9), and the district attorney declined prosecution (16). Of the 16 cases where the DA declined to prosecute, Norris notes that the alleged suspects were all known. DA Craig Ladd said 14 cases were declined due to insufficient evidence, while two were declined at complainant’s request.
“Our ethical obligation is to only file charges which are supported by probable cause. On the fourteen cases on which charges were declined, the reason for declining on each was essentially that the evidence was insufficient to warrant the filing of charges.” Ladd said.
Norris said the current procedure relies on the individual investigators or the property clerk making sure the kits are logged and stored per OSBI guidelines.
Previously, sexual assault kits were sent for testing only if the case were completed and charges were accepted by the DA’s office, but the guidelines have now changed. Per the state Attorney General’s office, Norris said the procedure now is to send all kits for testing regardless of the disposition of the case. Norris said the Attorney General’s office informed law enforcement that the goal of the SAFE Task Force is to audit the current situation and use the data to make recommendations to improve their response to sexual assault and deal with backlogged evidence kits.
The Governor’s order 2017-11 directs that “any and all sexual assault forensic evidence kits currently in the possession of any law enforcement agency are to be preserved until such time that the audit is concluded and the law enforcement agency is informed in writing by the Task Force that the evidence kits may be disposed of.”
Terri Watkins, with the Oklahoma Attorney General’s office, said the Governor requested each law enforcement agency inventory their vault and send the information to the AG’s office to be recorded. Watkins said they hoped to compile the information and make recommendations this spring.
The OSBI utilizes a Laboratory Information System which allows them to identify each sexual assault case that comes into their possession, said Jessica Brown, M.J., OSBI public information officer. Brown said once testing is complete a report is issued to the requesting agency and the DA with jurisdiction over the case. OSBI does not track outcomes of cases, Brown said.
Law enforcement does not collect the physical evidence. In district 20, which includes Carter, Johnston, Love, Marshall and Murray counties, the Sexual Assault Response Team includes the staff at Sara’s Project, located in Ardmore.
“The kits we use are directly from the OSBI lab,” said Lara Welch, a forensic interviewer with the program. “In the past, the kits contained quite a bit and took a long time to perform.”
Fingernail clippings, head hairs and multiple swabs were taken during collection. The process now contains just a few swabs and the exam is completed much more quickly, in just 15-20 minutes. A Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner completes paperwork and evidence forms that go along with the kit. Sara’s Project and similar organizations collect minimal information for their records and to allow them to prep for court.
“Once the examination is over and the swabs are ready to be sealed and the paperwork is finalized, everything is then sealed into two different envelopes provided by OSBI and signed over to the law enforcement investigator present,” Welch said. “We do not receive any information from OSBI regarding the kit, nor do we track the kit.”
Sara’s Project does, however, provide basic prophylactics if requested by the client. They also connect clients with partner agencies like the Family Shelter or the Health Department. Welch said their organization generally completes 20-25 kits per year for clients and law enforcement throughout the judicial district.
Currently, the state of Oklahoma has  no standing legislation or guidelines for untested kit inventory, dealing with backlog or newly collected evidence. Victims are also not currently informed of the status of their collected evidence. The information is not tracked after the kits are collected, as no tracking system is currently in place, nor has funding been appropriated to create one. Oklahoma House Bill 2929, authored by state Rep. Monroe Nichols, would give medical professionals treating sexual assault victims 24 hours to report the crime to law enforcement and sets forth guidelines for documentation, referral for treatment or services and investigation of sexual assault. The bill, if signed into state law, would also give the victim the right to request records and documentation of the evidence and of the investigation itself. The bill sets time limits on the collection and testing of evidence and sets a deadline for forensic evidence to be analyzed, with the long-term goal of completing analysis and classification of biological evidence not to exceed 60 days by January 2020.
Reported back log numbers for other local agencies include Chickasaw Nation Lighthorse Police (3), Davis Police (1), East Central University Police (1), Healdton Police (2), Lone Grove Police (0), Madill Police(1), Marietta Police (0), Johnston County Sheriff (4) and Love County Sheriff (1). Carter County Sheriff’s office had not reported to the task force audit as of Feb. 28, 2018, and did not respond to request for comment prior to press time.