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NIJ's Action-Research Project in Houston and Detroit

Date Published
June 14, 2012

Sidebar to the article Solving Sexual Assaults: Finding Answers Through Research by Nancy Ritter

In April 2011, NIJ awarded competitive research grants to Wayne County (Detroit) and Houston to examine the issue of untested evidence in sexual assaults. At that time, it was believed that there were more than 16,000 untested sexual assault kits (SAKs) in the Houston Police Department property room and more than 10,000 in Detroit police custody.

The NIJ-funded teams in Houston and Detroit include criminal justice researchers; sexual assault forensic examiners; and representatives from the police department, crime lab and community-based victim services organizations. One of the primary goals of the "action research" project is to produce transportable lessons and strategies to help other jurisdictions that have untested SAKs in their property rooms.

"Action research" is a method in which researchers engage in an active partnership with practitioner agencies to solve a problem. As former NIJ program manager Lois Mock and her co-authors explain in a 2010 article, the researchers play a key role in identifying the problem and analyzing the data and in working with the practitioner agency to develop intervention strategies to target the problem.[1] The practitioner agency implements the strategies, and the researchers monitor progress and provide feedback to better refine the strategies. Finally, the researchers conduct an assessment of the implementation of the problem-solving strategies and their impacts.

The Houston and Detroit projects were broken into two phases. The first was a six-month planning phase. The teams are now into the second, implementation, phase. Although it is too early to report any definite findings, some interesting preliminary data have emerged.

One of the Detroit team's goals in phase 1 was to get an accurate count of how many SAKs in police custody were, in fact, untested. Their audit has determined that, as of November 1, 2009, there were 8,505 untested SAKs in police storage.

A second goal in Detroit was to examine why the problem developed in the first place. Based on an analysis of 20 years of archival records (public records and internal records) and on in-depth interviews with key stakeholders from all multidisciplinary groups, researchers Rebecca Campbell and Giannina Fehler-Cabral from Michigan State University have identified reasons why there were so many untested SAKs in Detroit. In essence, they say, the following can be regarded as "risk factors" for a large number of untested SAKs:

  • Lack of a formal policy and protocol for kit testing
  • Reduction in staffing levels within law enforcement due to budget cuts, which can significantly curtail sexual assault investigations
  • Very high turnover in law enforcement leadership and supervision of the sex crimes unit
  • Reduction in staffing levels in the crime lab due to budget cuts
  • Use of inefficient DNA testing equipment/methodology within the crime lab due to budget cuts
  • Lack of good-quality sexual assault medical forensic exams
  • Lack of community-based sexual assault advocacy services
  • Lack of professional training for all multidisciplinary service providers

Currently, Detroit is testing a sample of the previously untested SAKs and developing victim-notification protocols.

In Houston, one of the most significant early findings concerns the number of untested kits. As part of its preparation for moving to a new evidence-storage facility, the Houston Police Department performed an audit of all SAKs in its custody. As a result of the audit, officials have determined that there are far fewer untested SAKs in Houston than previously believed. The NIJ project is focusing on approximately 4,000 kits that have been stored in the freezer, of which about one-third (1,200 kits) have been screened by the lab in the past couple of years.

In the first phase of the project, Noel Busch-Armendariz, Director of the Institute on Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault at the University of Texas at Austin, and her team — along with William Wells from Sam Houston State University, co-principal investigator on the NIJ project — conducted 146 interviews of law enforcement investigators, prosecutors, laboratory analysts, sexual assault nurse examiners, victim advocates and victims. The interviews are helping the team develop an in-depth understanding of untested sexual assault evidence in Houston.

Final results from the Houston and Detroit projects are expected in 2014.

About This Article

This article was published as part of NIJ Journal issue number 270, published May 2012, as a sidebar to the article Solving Sexual Assaults: Finding Answers Through Research, by Nancy Ritter.

Date Published: June 14, 2012