MEMPHIS, Tenn. — A new law in Tennessee will help sexual assault victims keep track of their evidence, thanks in part to help from a city thousands of miles away.
The law requires the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation to set up a tracking system for sexual assault evidence kits.
Donna Nelson, the crime laboratory regional supervisor with the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation, explained that every victim who consents to a sexual assault examination will get an ID number that will allow them to get real-time update on the status of their evidence through an online portal.
The state didn’t provide any money for the system, but TBI is looking at using an online portal created by the Portland, Oregon police department’s IT staff in 2018. That system would be free to the TBI.
The victim logs on to the website, types in their ID number and sees a simple diagram that shows the kit’s progress, if it’s at the crime lab for testing or if the results were returned to police.
“They have been working with this for a few years now. They are comfortable with their new system, so we are taking a look at it,” Nelson said.
This isn’t the first time we’ve mentioned Portland’s victim portal.
In February 2019 we told you about emails we uncovered between Memphis and Portland police. Portland police told us it gave MPD its software free of charge.
They were installing it and conducting training, but at the time, MPD said officers would be the only ones using it. They said it would make it easier for officers to give the victim an update.
While MPD didn’t mention Portland’s system, they did tell Memphis council members earlier this month they were aware of the new law that, in addition to the tracking system, also gives law enforcement agencies stricter requirements for collection, storage and tracking of evidence.
MPD said it’s already meeting those requirements.
Nelson says there are a lot of details that need to be hashed out, like whether the portal will apply to victims moving forward or those tied to backlogs like the one WREG uncovered in 2010, where 12,000 kits were found to be sitting in MPD evidence rooms collecting dust.
Victims have told us time and time again they wanted a way to track their kit. One woman said she waited nearly a year to find out her kit was processed.
The TBI told us in 2019, it was taking as long as 35 weeks to process the evidence from a rape kit due to staffing and the influx of kits they were receiving.
A Tennessee lawmaker, Rep. Bob Freeman, pointed out that issue. He helped draft and push for the new law.
“It allows the victim to have a little bit of control back into a situation where control has been taken from them,” Freeman said.
The TBI’s West Tennessee office opened a new lab in Jackson. Despite the bigger lab, they still have the same amount of staff.
But Nelson said the agency is getting back up and running with casework.
“In the next few months we’ll be able to give a better turnaround time,” she said.
The new tracking system will have to be in place by next July.
Both lawmakers and the TBI said they will ask for more funding next year to hire more people in hopes of getting more kits processed quicker.