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$1 Million Dollar Federal Grant To Reduce Untested Sexual Assault Kits In Fresno

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$1 Million Dollar Federal Grant To Reduce Untested Sexual Assault Kits In Fresno

Fresno City Council to discuss a federal grant for the specific purpose of acting “on evidence resulting from sexual assault kits” that have yet to be tested.

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The Fresno Police Department has been awarded a $1 million federal grant to help reduce the number of untested sexual assault kits in the department’s possession.

The City Council on Nov. 29 will be asked to authorize Chief Jerry Dyer to accept the grant.

According to a staff report, FPD has 694 sexual assault cases

“needing further investigation due to recent DNA hits.”

The item before the council is on the consent calendar. It remains to be seen if a council member pulls the item for further discussion. The grant, and all it implies about policy concerning a most serious issue of timely justice, certainly merits public review.

As Deputy Chief Pat Farmer writes in his staff report on the grant, the goals of Fresno’s Sexual Assault Response Team

“are to link victims with advocates, counseling services, and implement best practices to bring perpetrators to justice and increase safety within our community by preventing sexual assaults.”

The Sexual Assault Response Team has been working for a considerable time to figure out why so many sexual assault kits go un-submitted for processing, Farmer writes.

The council also will be asked to give Dyer the green light to contract with Rape Counseling Centers of Fresno to be a victim advocate during the three years.

The grant originates in the maze of bureaus and programs at the U.S. Department of Justice. The grant runs from Oct. 1, 2018 through Sept. 30, 2021. This particular grant is part of the 2018 National Sexual Assault Kit Initiative.

That name packs a lot of pain, policy tradeoffs and frustration into five words.

For starters, a sexual assault kit is pretty much what you’d expect. Someone claims to have been sexually assaulted. A medical professional, using the resources of such a kit, conducts tests on the complainant. Among other things, a DNA match can lead to the assailant’s arrest and conviction. Or, it can lead to someone’s exoneration.

The kit serves no purpose if it’s stored away, the processing delayed until sometime in an uncertain future.

It’s a problem that afflicts law enforcement agencies across the nation. The Department of Justice last month announced that it was awarding nearly $43 million to 32 jurisdictions to support the National Sexual Assault Kit Initiative.

Fresno was the only recipient in California.

Said Matt M. Dummermuth, a DOJ deputy attorney general, in a news release:

“Far too many people endure the physical and emotional trauma of a sexual assault only to have evidence of the crime sit on a shelf and gather dust. These grants will help investigators get these kits to labs, where they can be analyzed and used to solve crimes and bring justice on behalf of victims.”

Exactly how many sexual assault kits are backlogged at the Fresno Police Department is unclear to me.

The staff report at one point says the grant is to

“address the established sexual assault kit back log of cases within the FPD.”

At another point, the staff report says an April 2015 inventory of untested sexual assault kits resulted

“in the identification of 888 un-tested sexual assaults, suspicious deaths, and suspect homicide kits”

At another point, the staff report says that from the 888 untested kits identified in 2015

“there currently are 694 sexual assault cases need(ing) further investigation due to recent DNA hits.”

As an example of my confusion, I can’t tell from the staff report if the 694 sexual assault cases currently needing further investigation due to recent DNA hits are part of the 888 untested kits identified in 2015. But for the sake of the council’s possible discussion at the Nov. 29 meeting, such precision isn’t vital. What counts is this: First, the feds have awarded a $1 million grant to FPD for the specific purpose of acting (in the words of the DOJ press release) “on evidence resulting from sexual assault kits”; and, second, the fact that FPD apparently is reliant on grants to act in a timely manner on its full inventory of sexual assault kits should be a policy challenge of utmost importance to the City Council and the Administration of Mayor Lee Brand.

Immense community pressures are put on the Police Department’s limited resources. For instance, there is a huge push to expand the department’s Community Based Policing initiative – get more cops on patrol, get the officers more engaged in neighborhood affairs, turn them into quasi-social workers in an effort to combat the so-called root causes of crime.

Fair enough. But, as the Chief has said on more than one occasion, such a redeployment of limited resources inevitably means weakening other parts of FPD’s wide-ranging mission.

Perhaps there’s more to FPD’s backlog of sexual assault kits than just the need to find money to pay for some outside lab to analyze them. Perhaps this issue touches on the Mayor’s effort to craft a public safety/parks sales tax measure that passes muster with voters. Perhaps the council will dig into the issue on Nov. 29.

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George Hostetter

George Hostetter is a contributor to CVObserver.

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