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Rape kit

The contents of a rape kit used by nurses examining sexual assault victims.

The Lincoln Police Department’s recent decision to update its policy on sex assault investigations and examine previously untested rape kits deserves praise.

Lincoln police haven’t been asleep at the wheel; in fact, the department has done quite well in this regard to date. Under previous standards, it had the number pared down to where, as Police Chief Jeff Bliemeister says, “There are no untested kits in our property unit that hold investigative value specific to the allegations” is a remarkable accomplishment.

Rather than resting on its laurels, though, the agency is taking a commendable step to match the best practices recommended by the U.S. Department of Justice.

Other cities have far more significant backlogs. For instance, the Omaha Police Department announced last December that it received a grant to test the remaining 1,500 kits. In comparison, LPD has 353 on hand, with the oldest dating back to 2004 -- a number that’s going to be winnowed down in the near future.

Bliemeister told the Journal Star that those kits almost exclusively involve cases where the alleged assailant knew the victim – meaning that DNA testing would only confirm if there was sexual contact, not whether it was consensual. Those involving unknown offenders are automatically sent for testing, which represents a sound policy by police.

However, a significant benefit of automatically submitting past kits from those who have "not expressed a desire to discontinue" investigations, as Bliemeister said, is the potential to track down serial offenders. And there’s precedent for success, too: A three-year effort by New York City to examine untested kits ultimately yielded hundreds of convictions.

Furthermore, Lincoln has a relatively high rate of rapes reported – nearly 1 per 1,000 residents – compared to its peer cities. And that’s before considering sexual assaults are historically underreported.

Therefore, vowing to test every kit sends an important message that the victims are heard, especially as the Nebraska State Patrol Crime Lab can handle more tests, now that it’s back to full staffing.

This perception is important in light of the very involved, invasive process of collecting DNA, especially considering the difficulty in painting a complete picture after the fact. Bliemeister said nearly 90 percent of rape reports involve neither arrests nor cleared cases.

In June 2018, LPD detailed a marked increase in rapes reported – with nearly one-third of them involving incidents that occurred a year or more before police were notified. Not coincidentally, that spike occurred as the #MeToo movement, in which women felt empowered rather than shamed to share stories of victimization, gained steam.

By following survivors’ wishes and quickly adopting the best practices suggested by criminal justice, medical and trauma experts, Lincoln police have made a marked policy improvement.

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