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Hawaii police departments still working to compile stats on untested rape kits

(Image: Hawaii News Now/File) (Image: Hawaii News Now/File)
HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) -

Experts believe there are more than 2,000 untested rape kits here in Hawaii.

But the exact number is still unknown because three of the four county police departments still haven't reported the figures to the state Attorney General's office, something they were required to do by Sept. 1.

The figures will be used in a legislatively-mandated report.

And while the delay is frustrating, the state Attorney General's office says it has given police departments more time so they're sure the data is accurate.

This is the first time police departments have been required to inventory their untested rape kits.

The requirement was included in a law passed in the last legislative session, after the Honolulu Police Department acknowledged it had 1,500 untested rape kits in storage.

Some of the rape kits in HPD evidence are nearly 30 years old, officials said. At the time, HPD estimated that about one-fifth of all collected kits were eventually tested.

The only police department that's submitted figures on untested rape kits to the state is Kauai.

Honolulu, Hawaii and Maui police must still submit the figures, along with how old the untested kits are.

"Our concern is having an accurate count and not to have a process where they meet a deadline but now there needs to be a redo because there was such a rush and frantic effort to meet the Sept. 1," said Julie Ebato, crime prevention and justice assistance division administrator with the state Attorney General's office. "We encouraged them to do due diligence and for whatever number they're going to report to us will be the correct number."

Kauai police says it has collected 221 sex assault kits since 2001, when they were first distributed to the department for evidence gathering.

For the last four years, KPD has been sending their rape kits to a private lab -- paid for with funding it pursued through a grant. To date, about 70 rape kits have been processed for DNA analysis, leaving 150 untested.

"A lot of cases are solved through good police interviews and interrogations, confessions from suspects and different kinds of evidence that leads to a case being solved," said Kauai police Capt. Bryson Ponce. "The kit is one part of the investigation, but there's a lot of other ways to solve the case -- even if the kit hasn't been processed or analyzed."

He added, “The Kauai Police Department, Honolulu Police Department, Maui Police Department and Hawaii Police Department has been working very diligently with the Attorney General's Office to come up with accurate inventory, an accurate count and a plan to test these kits."

Despite the delay, the state Attorney General's office says its confident it will get the necessary information from each police department in time to compile a report due to the state Legislature by Dec. 1.

The report is required to lay out a plan for how to address the untested rape kits of the past and move forward with uniform policies for the future.  

"I think at the end of the day it's just more accountability -- just to ensure that kits that really should be tested and need to be tested are tested, and there's a lot of education that needs to be done as to the processes and it's not clear what has been conducted in the past, so I think some transparency," Ebato said.

Actress Mariska Hargitay, founder of the Joyful Heart Foundation in Hawaii, which seeks to end domestic violence and sexual assault, says ending rape kit backlogs are its top priority.

"To me, the backlog is one of the clearest and most shocking demonstrations of how we regard these crimes in our society," she said, in a statement to Hawaii News Now. "Earlier this month, I traveled to Hawaii — Joyful Heart's birthplace — to join our partners in this work, learn more about what is happening on the ground, and offer my support and resources to shine a light on this work. We will continue to stand with survivors in Hawaii and across the nation to increase transparency, implement rape kit reform, and bring justice to survivors who have waited far too long."

Act 207, signed into law by Gov. David Ige in July, requires the Attorney General's office to form a working group to compile the report that's due to lawmakers by Dec. 1.

The group is composed of representatives from each of the four county police departments and each of the county prosecutors offices, along with victim service providers from each of the four counties.

Ebato says the group has been meeting for the last three months.

According to the Joyful Heart Foundation, hundreds of thousands of untested rape kits are sitting in police and crime lab storage across the country.

Advocates say each one represents a survivor who endured an invasive exam with hope that justice would be served, but many never hear anything back about their kits -- or their cases.

Joyful Heart was not included in the state Attorney General's work group but says it has been closely monitoring Hawaii's efforts to reform rape kit testing and victim tracking.

"Joyful Heart remains hopeful that the county police departments will fulfill their obligation to report on the number of untested kits in their possession, as this is a crucial component of creating rape kit reform in our state," said Kata Issari, executive director of the Hawaii Region for the Joyful Heart Foundation.

"We continue to collaborate with the courageous and visionary members of the Women's Caucus to provide input on future legislation and reform efforts. Because we have not been included in the work group, we declined the opportunity to comment on their process and findings until they are complete. However, we look forward to reviewing their final report, and remain committed to providing our national and local expertise in any way that is welcomed. We believe that true change only comes from collaboration and partnership, and we stand ready to serve to help bring justice to survivors in our state and across the country."

Hawaii News Now also sought comment from Hawaii Island, Maui and Honolulu police.

The Hawaii County police department did not respond to our request.

The Maui Police Department said it would need more time to respond to our request for comment.

And the Honolulu Police Department emailed the following statement:

"HPD has been working to comply with Act 207 since it was signed into law in July. Unfortunately, even with personnel working full-time on the inventory, we were unable to meet the September deadline. HPD recognizes the importance of the inventory and will be turning it over to the Attorney General's Office as soon as it is complete."

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