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The heated debate between the Salt Lake City Council and the police department on whether and when to analyze forensic evidence in alleged sex assault cases is about to take a sharp turn.
The council is preparing an ordinance that would require city investigators to submit for analysis all so-called Code R kits, also known as rape kits, gathered from victims by specially trained nurses after a reported sexual assault.
Momentum for such action has been building since April 15, when Councilman Kyle LaMalfa asked Police Chief Chris Burbank why his department had not analyzed 788 of 1,001 rape kits collected between 2003 and 2011.
An emotional discussion ensued at that council work session. Burbank enumerated reasons why that kind of policy would be unnecessary, such as when a perpetrator already has been identified or when a complainant drops a case. Beyond that, the chief said it takes up to six months for the state crime lab to process evidence at a cost of $1,100 per kit.
Burbank also took umbrage at the suggestion his department wasn't doing all it should regarding rape cases. "Our investigators are very passionate about solving these crimes."
The council also has heard from advocates, such as Rape Recovery Center Executive Director Holly Mullen, who maintained that all kits should be analyzed to give victims due process. It also could help identify serial rapists through a national DNA database called CODIS, she added.
Mullen said victims often face investigators who question their veracity, leading them to drop their claims. "I don't know why rape victims aren't afforded the same respect as victims of other crimes," she said Friday.
The debate comes amid a movement to analyze backlogs of Code R kits that have piled up by the thousands in police evidence rooms nationwide.
But in cities such as Detroit and Cleveland, where new efforts are under way to analyze backlogged kits, investigators are filing indictments in old cases. Conviction rates are up.
The Salt Lake City Council's proposed ordinance would be based loosely on one San Francisco adopted several years ago called the "Sexual Assault Victims' Bill of Rights."
It would require police to collect rape kits from a health-care provider within 72 hours of an assault report and mandate that DNA contained in the evidence be tested within 14 days.
LaMalfa said Friday the council has been waiting for Burbank to lead out on the issue. But since the council has seen little action from the police department, he said, he and his colleagues are prepared to act.
"The sense among the policymakers," LaMalfa said, "is that we've waited long enough."
A spokeswoman for Burbank said the police would like to be involved in ordinance talks.
Among other points, Lara Jones said, Burbank is concerned about prioritizing one type of crime over others. Many kinds of crimes require forensic analysis, she said, piling more work on an already-overwhelmed state lab.
In addition, Jones said the council needs to give the department more money if it has to hire private labs to provide analysis more quickly.
Council Chairman Charlie Luke said he would like the council to consider a two-part ordinance. Part one would require all new Code R kits to be analyzed within two weeks. The second would prescribe a methodical plan to analyze kits now in evidence storage.
The city owes sex-assault victims a thorough investigation, said Councilwoman Erin Mendenhall, adding that victims suffer trauma from the attack and an aftermath of guilt, shame and fear that can linger for years.
"This is people's lives who have been damaged," she said.
The results from analyzing backlogged rape kits in places such as Detroit are "staggering," Mendenhall said. "This forces us to confront the reality that this can be ignored no longer."