Study sheds light on Detroit’s rape kit backlog

Apr 10, 2015 at 4:12 pm

For Detroiters staggered by the 2009 discovery of over 11,000 untested rape kits in a Detroit Police Department (DPD) storage warehouse, a study by sexual assault researchers at Michigan State University finally provides some answers. Funded by the National Institute of Justice, the report paints a bleak portrait of a police department in which victim-blaming behaviors were common— justified and compounded by a crippling lack of resources. 

At about 500 pages in length, the report ( is painstakingly comprehensive in its analysis of Detroit’s rape kit backlog, drawing from historical and sociological perspectives in its discussion of how, exactly, this backlog came to be. The answers provided span a myriad of bureaucratic issues, but center around one disturbing fact: DPD consistently “cut corners” in their investigations of rape cases, oftentimes invoking victim-blaming or disbelieving attitudes as rationale for their actions.

These actions were part and parcel of a police department in which investigators, lab workers, and the resources available to them were stretched remarkably thin by lack of funding. In an interview for the study, one insider explained:

“So you bring in this kit (one believed not worthy of testing) and in the meantime [we] got a horrific murder, a serial rapist, limited resources, limited personnel and we’re expending our energy on this . . . and if the victim’s kind of shady . . . Just bring us the real ones.”

According to the report, a victim was often deemed “shady” by investigators and lab workers based on factors such as age, whether the victim was acquainted with his/her rapist, and whether the victim was believed to be a prostitute.

Of the 1,595 kits sampled for the study, 43% came from victims under the age of 18. Young victims were often believed to have cried rape as a way of avoiding getting in trouble with parents for things like staying out late, associating with older men, or drinking and doing drugs.

Furthermore, victims who knew their attackers were doubted. Oftentimes, the accused claimed the act was consensual, and investigators believed it would be too difficult to prove otherwise. Other times, investigators perceived the victim’s actions to be revenge-seeking when the attacker was someone like a partner or former partner.

And lastly, victims who were thought to have engaged in sex work were widely disbelieved or blamed for what happened to them. Such victims were often accused of merely taking part in a “deal gone bad”— in other words, they were prostitutes who were not paid for their services and subsequently cried rape.

The report also makes an important point regarding the profile of many victims of sexual assault in Detroit. Sexual assaults nationwide are largely committed against women. Sexual assaults in the city of Detroit are largely committed against black women, oftentimes black women who live in poverty. DPD fiercely denies claims that racial or gender discrimination had anything to do with the backlog. But according to the authors of the study, this intersection of oppressions made it all too easy for the rape kits of over 11,000 Detroiters to go ignored for years.

In the words of the report, “the [cases] had been shelved, figuratively; the [kits] had been shelved, literally.” But today, Detroiters have rallied around the efforts of Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy, along with the Detroit Crime Commission and the Michigan Women’s Foundation, who are seeking justice for the people behind those forgotten kits. They’ve established an initiative called Enough SAID (Sexual Assault in Detroit), which seeks to test the city’s backlogged kits, see to it that perpetrators of sexual assault are found and prosecuted, and after all is said and done, make Detroit a safer city.

It will be a long, complicated road to accomplishing those goals. But at a 2014 press conference about the backlog, Worthy echoed the sentiments of Metro Detroiters determined to see the kits tested and justice done. “I don't care how long it takes,” she said. “We’re going to finish.”