Sen. Norris: Memphis now model for assault kit handling

On October 19, 2015, in News 2015, by Mark Norris

By Ryan Poe, Commercial Appeal
October 19, 2015

Memphis has gone from a cautionary tale for its handling of untested sexual assault kits to a model for other cities, state Sen. Mark Norris said at a summit on the issue Monday.

Following his address at the second annual Sexual Assault Kit Summit for Cities at the Cook Convention Center, Norris said the more than 12,000 untested sexual assault kits Memphis had at its peak were a “prologue, not a backlog.”

Memphis has become an important example for other cities wrestling with the same problem, said Norris, the Senate majority leader and sponsor of three laws since 2014 to erase backlogs in Memphis and across the state.

“It’s not just a Memphis problem or a Tennessee problem,” Norris said. “It’s a national one. And they’re looking to us for best practices.”

Reporters were turned away from the closed meeting, which brought together representatives from 13 other cities to talk about best practices for reducing backlogs. Dewanna Smith, spokeswoman for Memphis Mayor A C Wharton, said the meeting was closed to media to allow the free exchange of information between participants.

Congressman Steve Cohen, who also spoke at the summit, criticized the event organizers for closing the meeting — a move he said “made no sense whatsoever.”

Even though the city has taken steps to reduce its backlog, it still faces two class-action lawsuits filed in 2013 and 2014 over the city’s initial handling of the kits. Cohen said the city failed to protect women from serial rapists by not processing the kits.

“We were a model in ineffectiveness at first because we had one of the biggest backlogs going,” he said.

Cohen helped the city get $4.1 million in federal money for testing, while Norris helped push through laws that required a statewide inventory of sexual assault kits, that repealed a statute of limitations on cases reported in the first three years, and one that goes into effect this January that requires kits to be processed in 60 days.

At the end of August, Memphis had completed analysis on 5,250 kits, 42 percent of its original backlog. The other kits were either at the laboratory awaiting analysis (18 percent) or needed additional analysis (39 percent).

Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell and District Attorney Amy Weirichwere also among the attendees at the event.

Luttrell said he talked about how the backlog of kits pushed local agencies to review and improve their procedures and processes — valuable information for other cities facing the same backlogs.

“It wasn’t about finger pointing or finding cause,” he said of the summit. “It was about problem solving.”

In addition to reducing the backlog, Norris said the city and county have worked to reduce sexual assaults. In the city, sexual assaults are down 10 percent from a year ago, and 2.2 percent from 2006, he said. In Shelby County, sexual assaults are down 12.3 percent from a year ago, and 9.6 percent from 2006.

Wharton’s spokeswoman said he would not make comments on the summit until after it ends Tuesday. Weirich also declined to comment until then.

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