By Matt Valenti
Who will take ownership of the responsibility to ensure all rape kits in San Diego are tested?
Two weeks ago, thanks to the courage of five whistleblowing crime lab employees, we learned the San Diego Police Department certainly won’t.
Neither, apparently, will the mayor.
As the bombshell Voice of San Diego investigation revealed, SDPD’s crime lab botched numerous sexual assault investigations by intentionally manipulating the results of rape kit tests—defying best practices nationwide.
Rather than test all six or more of the swabs in these kits, crime lab manager Jennifer Shen circumvented established procedures and ordered her criminalists to test just one—the outer vaginal swab—though male DNA of perpetrators is often found on the other swabs.
Shen apparently saw fit to include a cartoon joking about DNA testing in the memo ordering this faulty “one swab only” policy, calling into question how seriously she takes rape victims. Yet she remains in charge of the crime lab.
The DNA in the untested swabs could have been added to the FBI database to help stop serial rapists. As one of the whistleblowing crime lab analysts put it, “The value of testing those kits is to have profiles in the database to solve other cases. But management and above still sees this as a fool’s errand.”
“Management and above” of course means Shen, but more importantly the two men who supervise her: Chief David Nisleit and Mayor Kevin Faulconer.
Their response to the scandal has been a case study in disowning responsibility.
Nisleit issued an Orwellian statement which said SDPD holds itself “to the highest of standards,” though he failed to identify which standards were violated by the crime lab and how those violations would be rectified. Instead, he simply passed the buck and announced the remaining rape tests would now be sent to a private lab for testing.
Faulconer’s response was a little better, calling for “immediate steps” to end the backlog, but he needs to take full ownership of the problem.
Even District Attorney Summer Stephan, who has at best a checkered history on this issue, spoke up and tried to distance herself from the scandal—though her own staff members are part of the working group at SDPD overseeing the testing.
Contrast Stephan’s public relations response with the principled stand of her opponent in the 2018 DA’s race, Geneviève Jones-Wright, who has long been calling for all rape kits to be fully and properly tested.
Then there are local advocates like Suzanne Moore of Heartfelt Voices United who have also been longstanding advocates for fully testing all rape kits. And mayoral candidates Tasha Williamson and Barbara Bry recently made public statements demanding real accountability for SDPD’s epic failure.
Faulconer needs to take ownership of this failure. Otherwise, it’s a betrayal of victims and survivors of sexual assault.
Remember, a rape kit is not a simple piece of evidence gathered in a plastic bag at a crime scene. It is the end result of a grueling, invasive ordeal for those few victims willing to undergo it. The medical examination can take four to six hours, during which time the patient can’t eat, drink, or take a shower. The naked victim is swabbed all over her body. Every orifice is examined, probed, and photographed.
After experiencing the trauma of sexual assault and being brave enough to make it through hours of invasive examination, rape victims deserve better than to have the evidence in their rape kit disregarded or manipulated by a police department led by a mayor who apparently thinks it’s a “fool’s errand” to test it properly.
Pursuing justice for rape victims and contributing evidence to the FBI database is not a fool’s errand. It’s called justice. And disowning the pursuit of justice is not something a police chief or mayor should ever be doing.
It’s time for every one of us to take ownership of this issue. To demand every rape kit gets properly tested and every alleged rape or sexual assault properly investigated. To demand accountability from law enforcement officials like Shen who make jokes about rape kit testing because she feels it’s a fool’s errand.
If the mayor doesn’t take ownership, and hold those responsible fully accountable, then the rest of us should speak up, loud and clear.
Matt Valenti is an attorney, sexual abuse prevention advocate and former City Council candidate.
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