By Amanda Hart
Just in time for Women’s History Month, the Houston Police Department has released its burgeoning untested rape kit log—6,663 kits to be exact, with some kits reaching back as far as the 1980’s. When I first heard this number I thought surely it was inaccurate, that I was actually just watching an episode of Law and Order: SVU, not a local news channel. Such an outrageous number left me with nothing but stunned questions.
Questions like: What the fuck HPD? How the hell did you end up with a back log of 6,600 untested rape kits? The excuses that were to follow were as vomit inducing as the numbers themselves. On February 16th, at a monthly HPD press conference, Assistant Chief Matt Slinkard explained, “There are many reasons why sexual assault kits may be untested in police property rooms; for example, as the chief has mentioned before, possibly a suspect pled guilty during the course of an investigation prior to any testing being done. Possibly there was an issue of consent, meaning the sexual assault kits are possibly no longer probative in the investigation. There might have been a situation during the investigation where the district attorney rejected charges. And also, once a kit is screened in the first phase of testing, which we call presumptive screening, many kits—about 40%– will show that there is no biological material to go on for DNA extraction and amplification. So that would end at that phase, and no DNA testing would be done. Now within that population of 6,663 untested sexual assault kits are there possibly open and active investigations in there that need to have a closer look so we can go forward and make sure we are creating a priority list to make sure those are being tested and done if need be? Absolutely.” So let me understand: While it is “possible” that some untested rape kits equate to the police not doing their jobs, Assistant Chief Slinkard makes it sound as if they do not constitute the bulk of the backlog. Anybody else notice the odious smell wafting off that statement?
Next, I figured out how much money was spent to complete this most recent audit of untested rape kits sitting in storage—a whopping $178,000 out of the nearly million dollars awarded Houston by The Department of Justice to audit, sort and create future plans to keep the numbers from getting out of hand again. Does anyone else see an issue with that? I tell you what, I will save us taxpayers the left- over $800,000 and clear this whole matter up right now. If a rape kit contains useable DNA and the alleged crime has not reached the statute of limitations, then test the fucking kit. Tada! Now we have $800,000 to begin testing rape kits. I understand that all institutional procedures in our society involve some level of bureaucratic madness, but wasting money to figure out how many untested rape kits are stored in the City of Houston should not be part of it—especially if almost $200,000 had already funded an incomplete audit that failed to classify the untested rape kits. That amount of money should have been sufficient to not only count the number of untested kits but also to determine in which column they should be recorded to avoid speculation regarding the need for further testing of the kits.
The most disheartening piece of this puzzle is the story of a woman who dealt personally with the HPD. She happened to contact me to share her deeply personal account of an assault that began with her attacker but which was exacerbated by the HPD. The woman, whom we will call Jane for the sake of anonymity, went to the HPD after being raped only to spend many months following her report emotionally and monetarily harassed at the hands of the detective assigned to her case. Not only did the detective working her case behave unprofessionally, but in the end Jane was forced to pay for her own rape kit.
Jane explained that she arrived at the special crimes unit 36 hours after her attack and was told that she needed to go directly to Memorial Hermann or Ben Taub for her rape kit. She was reassured that either hospital’s financial costs would be covered by the state and the city. She explained to HPD that she did not have insurance, and they reaffirmed that she would incur no cost if she went to one of the city-run hospitals. So she immediately went to Memorial Hermann and endured the invasive process of evidence collection. She left the hospital that night like most women do after their clothes have been taken from them for evidence—in a hospital robe. The next few weeks turned into a terrible game of phone tag with the detective assigned to her case, Investigator Ruben Zermeno, who from the beginning was unprofessional, to say the least. He began their repeated conversations by telling Jane that she really should have gone to the police sooner than 36 hours after her attack, that her case was really not looking good since she had waited so long to come in. I am not sure what HPD sex crimes training handbook says but I am almost positive that is not in the manuscript. That would be something that a district attorney might explain before trial, not the detective on the case.
Over a month after Jane was attacked she was walking down Mckinney Street after a job interview when a car pulled up next to her and its window went down to reveal Detective Zermeno, who announced right there, at a very busy public intersection, “Hey, sorry I’ve missed your calls, but I just wanted to tell you that he (the attacker) agreed to come in for questioning.” Jane looked around mortified and said, “Okay.” When the light turned green, Zermeno said goodbye and drove away. No matter how heavy Zermeno’s caseload, it is unacceptable for him to stop and speak openly to a victim walking down the street about her rape.
The District Attorney refused to take on Jane’s case against her rapist, and the charges were dropped. No one notified Jane of this occurrence; she was informed only after she had inquired about it herself. She was told that she could go to the police station to pick up her clothes from the rape kit. When she went to get them, however, some key items were missing. She was given a sweater, pants and the piece of paper that she had undressed on in the hospital (WTF, why would you give her the paper she undressed on?). Her bra and underwear were not with her rape kit. This begs the obvious question: Where the fuck were they?
The kicker came when Jane began to receive bills from Memorial Hermann for the rape kit they had administered, bills which totaled $1,670. She ignored the first few bills, thinking that maybe they had been sent to her by accident and that surely the bills must also have been sent to the city or the state and that the charges would work themselves out. However, when Jane soon began receiving final notices and threats of collection agency action, she realized that someone had decided she was responsible for paying for her own rape kit—a rape kit that was neither examined nor considered for use by HPD—a rape kit that was missing her bra and underwear. Jane ignored the bills. Detective Zermeno had proven he was of no help; she felt a wall between them against which she was helpless. It was not until Jane attempted to purchase a used car that she was alerted of the medical debt on her credit record—a horrible reminder of the traumatic rape from which she was just beginning to emotionally recover. Jane contacted the collection agency and was told that they could offer her a discounted price of half the original charge, but she had to pay it that day. So she divided the $835 between two cards and took the hit in an attempt to make this awful ordeal go away once and for all.
I know HPD wants us to believe that this back-logged rape kit fiasco is really not tied to them not properly doing their jobs, but accounts like Jane’s are not doing much for their argument. And while I also sympathize with and respect sex crime detectives who are properly doing their jobs and are doing the best they can with a broken system, Detective Ruben Zermeno is not one of those officers. I also urge anyone else who has experienced anything like the above story to file a complaint with HPD. I know that after being victimized by the system to which you went for help you understandably might give up and do what Jane was forced to do. But many HPD detectives and officers perform their jobs properly, and the only way unprofessional behavior will change is if citizens make injustices known. We have to protect each other, and reporting abuse is one of the only weapons we have. So let’s use it.
*Author’s note. I contacted the sex crimes unit in an attempt to get some answers not only about the untested rape kits but the unprofessional behavior exhibited by detective Zermeno. I was given some numbers to call, and I am still waiting on a call back.
Moreover, if reporting any abuse to HPD is terrifying or would regress the progress you have made in dealing with your assault, you have other options, other places where you can report the abuse, including the Women’s Center on Waugh and the Women’s Resource Center at the University of Houston. I am currently working with Jane in an attempt to get the money back that she paid for her kit and with reporting the disgusting professional neglect by detective Zermeno. If in the end you do not feel comfortable reporting an assault, I understand and think that you should do what is best for your well being. Just know that people are here for you if you need us.