Duluth cops, advocates strive for 'lasting impact': Partnership aims to improve sexual assault investigations
DULUTH — Duluth police investigator John Barrett recognizes that traditional law enforcement techniques often don't work for sexual assault victims.
In fact, intrusive interviews and evidence collection procedures can actually have negative impacts on investigations, he said.
Peppered with questions, victims can feel like they're being unfairly judged. Struggling to get answers, investigators can become skeptical of the victims' claims.
"As cops we're always about who, what, when, where, why," Barrett said. "You've got to find out elements of things: When it happened, where it happened, is there a crime scene?
"With victims of trauma, the memories are there. They just can't pull them out yet. Oftentimes we're sitting there going, 'Then what happened next?' — trying to ask them to tell you something in the order it happened — and they just can't do that."
Better communication and outreach to victims has been a major focus of a federally funded collaboration between the Duluth Police Department and the Program for Aid to Victims of Sexual Assault.
The agencies' Sexual Assault Kit Initiative has received more than $2 million in grants from the U.S. Department of Justice's Bureau of Justice Assistance since 2015.
As its name suggests, the initiative strives to improve practices for sexual assault kits, which are used to collect physical evidence from victims at the time of a report.
The police department two years ago had a backlog of more than 500 kits that, for various reasons, had never been sent to a laboratory for DNA testing. With increased assistance from the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, officials figure to have that backlog erased within a few months.
But with grant funding continuing through 2020, investigators and advocates say they're working to learn broader lessons that can help agencies improve sexual assault investigations.
"Our project is meant to be temporary," said Sam Madsen, a victim advocate at PAVSA. "We're all trying to work ourselves out of a job. But we want to figure out how we can leave a lasting impact so these problems don't happen again."
Kit testing accelerated
The Duluth Police Department had 578 untested sexual assault kits on hand in July 2015 when state legislation mandated an inventory. That was the highest number of any agency in the state.
Each kit consists of several swabs and other physical evidence taken from the victim by a nurse after an assault is reported.
Officials said Duluth's backlog was caused by several factors. In some cases victims wished to remain anonymous, dropped out of contact or didn't want to move forward. In others, a suspect had admitted to having sexual contact with the victim, which resulted in the kits having little evidentiary value.
"Overall, there's been a lack of clear policy or protocol as to how best handle the kits," Madsen said. "Our goal is to implement some more structure as far as how those kits are handled, with timelines and instructions for investigators, so it's not up to individual people."
The police department initially entered into an agreement that had the BCA taking 10 kits at a time for testing, which could often take three or four months.
But new testing procedures at the state crime lab should allow the department to essentially eliminate its backlog by early next year. The BCA is now taking 50 kits at a time and working through them within weeks.
That's thanks to a "Direct to DNA" test that the agency adopted in September, BCA spokeswoman Jill Oliveira said. The process allows lab workers to first determine whether a sample even contains any male DNA before moving forward with more time-consuming tests.
"A BCA scientist can complete testing on about 20 kits per month using the current approach," she said in an email. "We are still determining what the capacity would be under the Direct to DNA process. We continue to work with Duluth PD on the project and have begun screening the kits using this approach."
The department's inventory was down to fewer than 200 as of last week, SAKI site coordinator Mary Faulkner said. There are an additional 124 anonymous kits that won't be sent off to the BCA for testing unless they receive consent from the victims.
Police said they're seeing some unexpected results from having tests completed on previously untested kits.
"If you have a suspect that says we had sex but it was consensual, that evidence doesn't tell you anything you didn't already know," Barrett said. "So those kind of took a back seat to what else is important in that case. But what we're finding out now is that they might have offended elsewhere. Across the country, we have cases where this person offended 13, 14, 15 times in other states."
Assistant St. Louis County Attorney Nate Stumme, who works with the SAKI team, said the testing has already helped initiate seven new prosecutions that otherwise would not have been possible.
He said his office, which has received a portion of the grant funds, was bracing for a potential influx of cases with the expedited testing.
"We're excited that a lot of these old cases might come to some level of justice for the victims and for the perpetrators," Stumme said. "And it's also very exciting that we're going to figure out techniques and protocols to avoid this kind of accumulation of untested kits in the future."
Better outreach, resources
Stumme said a lack of participation from victims after an initial report has been a hindrance to prosecuting cases. And while sexual harassment and assault allegations against celebrities have dominated headlines over the past month, he said those cases do not represent the experience of a typical victim.
"Our victims are not rich and famous," Stumme said. "They're struggling with mental health issues, addiction issues, housing issues. And so back when a lot of these cases started, it would not have been unusual for the victims a couple weeks after the rape to be in the wind."
A goal of the partnership is to improve communication with victims, starting from the time the report is first made, to avoid another future backlog of kits and provide better results in sexual assault investigations.
Barrett said police are realizing that victims are able to provide more detailed statements two or three days after the incident, after they've had sleep cycles and are more prepared to answer difficult questions.
PAVSA advocates also have worked with police to develop better interview techniques. Madsen said that includes helping victims understand why certain questions and the collection of physical evidence — clothing, for example — is important to a case, and not meant as a judgment of the victim.
"I think the officers have come a long way," Madsen said. "They still have to ask some of those questions of who, what, when, where, why, but they're framing it in a way that's not punitive."
Em Westerlund, PAVSA's sexual assault nurse examiner program coordinator, said the SAKI partnership also has given the agencies better resources to reach out to past victims, whose cases date back more than 20 years.
Advocates are working to contact each victim as their kits are tested. And they also plan to reach out to the victims in the 124 "Jane Doe" cases to see if they want the case to go forward.
"Having the opportunity to corroborate the information that PAVSA has and do checks and balances with what DPD has with their resources, we're better able to try to re-establish contact with victims," she said.
Madsen calls victims and offers to meet with them. She also gives them the choice if they'd like to have an investigator present.
She said she gets three main reactions.
"Some people are like, 'Umm, OK, sure, I guess I'll meet with you,'" Madsen said. "Others are more like, 'Nope, I'm good, I don't want to be contacted any more about this.' And other people are like, 'I wondered when you were going to call me, thank you for reaching out.' So it's really just meeting people where they're at."
Faulkner said those involved in the program have been keeping a wish list, looking at areas that could potentially benefit from additional grant funding in future cycles. They've been exploring training opportunities, records and technology improvements and possibilities for additional law enforcement or advocate positions and resources.
"It's not really until you start doing the work that you know where all the gaps are," she said.
Duluth is the only jurisdiction in the state that currently has the SAKI funding. The team members said they hope the collaboration allows them to learn from past mistakes and implement better policies that can be shared with other agencies.
"There are lots of unknowns about this grant," Stumme said, "but we think it's all going to lead to some very good outcomes for the future of our community, and the nation and the world will be able to learn from our lessons as well."
Betty Skye Line
Anyone who has reported a sexual assault to the police or a hospital can check on the status of their case through PAVSA's confidential Betty Skye Line.
The service is named in honor of a late Duluth woman who was an assault victim and worked closely with PAVSA staff and other victims in the community. Only PAVSA advocates have access to messages.
The service can be accessed by phone at (218) 730-5449 or by email at email@example.com.