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Volume 6, Issue 1
October 2013

Detroit Sexual Assault Kit Action Research Project

  • Rebecca Campbell, Ph.D.
  • Professor, Department of Psychology
  • College of Social Science
Picture of Rebecca Campbell

Rebecca Campbell is keenly aware of the importance of working with multiple stakeholders to bring about effective, collaborative change — and how a researcher's role can contribute to those changes.

Dr. Campbell has worked on a multitude of projects that address the legal and medical systems available for sexual assault survivors. She has developed close community partnerships with professionals who work tirelessly to promote better services for those who have experienced violent crimes.

Two years ago Campbell was brought in to the Detroit Sexual Assault Kit (SAK) Action Research Project to establish the methodology and the indicators for data collection and evaluation. In that capacity, Campbell is instrumental in contributing academic expertise for one of the toughest challenges to emerge in Michigan law enforcement.

A sexual assault kit, also known as a rape kit, is made up of evidence collected from a victim during a medical exam. Biological and trace evidence such as body fluids, saliva, hair, and fingernails can be analyzed for DNA by forensic examiners. The collection of this evidence can contribute significantly to solving sexual assault crimes, particularly with serial rapists.

In 2009, Detroit public officials confirmed the discovery of thousands of untested sexual assault kits from crimes dating back to the 1980s. The evidence had been stored in a police property storage facility and lacked full documentation and scientific testing.

"My job is to deliver an empirically generated road map, with testing, information, and options on proceeding in the most efficient manner."

–Rebecca Campbell

During the lengthy and detail-filled job of indexing backlogged kits, a collaborative working team assembled to plan next steps. Representatives from the Wayne County Prosecutor's Office, Detroit Police, Michigan State Police, Michigan Domestic Violence Prevention and Treatment Board, the Prosecuting Attorneys Association of Michigan, Wayne County Sexual Assault Forensic Examiners (SAFE), and YWCA Interim House participated in the dialogue.

Debi Cain, executive director of the Michigan Domestic and Sexual Violence Prevention and Treatment Board, recommended Campbell for the 'action research' portion of the project.

"Michigan is fortunate to have the preeminent sexual assault researcher in the country here in our back yard. Becki Campbell has done groundbreaking research in numerous sexual assault arenas; research that is being used daily in work with sexual assault survivors," said Cain.

Project Phases

Picture for Detroit Sexual Assault Kit Action Research Project

An initial grant from the Office on Violence Against Women in the U.S. Department of Justice covered a comprehensive scientific audit of 400 randomly selected cases from the warehouse facility discovery. Steven Pierce, associate director of MSU's Center for Statistical Training and Consulting, provided statistical analysis.

Campbell's piece of the project began in April 2011 with an audit and an assessment of the scope of the problem. A second yearlong phase included a plan for testing as many kits as possible, and developing and implementing four separate research studies designed to address advancing the investigation and prosecution of reported sexual assaults.

The final portion of the project, scheduled to conclude this December, calls for completing SAK testing and associated research analyses, a multidisciplinary victim notification protocol, and a longitudinal investigation surrounding the reasons for the sexual assault kit backlog and lack of adequate record keeping. The report will include the processes followed to accomplish the project goals, so that "transportable lessons" and strategies can be developed for other communities that face the same challenges with untested kits.

There are several thorny difficulties facing law enforcement officials and survivors when solving crimes and implementing justice for cases that are in the not-so-recent past. Campbell participated in many of the conversations by offering a volume of evidence-based research.

"I am responsible for presenting information that is accurate, understandable and thorough. This gives policy makers and decision makers the most complete picture available for making informed decisions," said Campbell.

Beyond the research and evaluation capabilities and experience Campbell brought to the project, she notes that engaged scholarship is often time-consuming, and requires patience, persistence, and commitment.

"There is a lot of digging and a lot of documenting. We go through police records and library archives, attend meetings and interviews, and generally spend a lot of time making sure we cover as much as we can, and learn as much as we can," said Campbell.

The Road Ahead

Campbell sees their work on the Detroit Sexual Assault Kit Action Research project as setting a standard for future protocols. While some other communities have also been noted for unattended backlogs of sexual assault kits, it is a problem that could potentially become more widespread as other regions confront rapid technological and scientific developments, strained funding, oversight insufficiencies and understaffing.

"My job is to deliver an empirically generated road map, with testing, information, and options on proceeding in the most efficient manner," said Campbell. "It is definitely rewarding to apply our scholarship to such a tough societal issue and help generate enough comprehensive data to have a positive impact on the process."

  • Written by Carla Hills, University Outreach and Engagement
  • Photographs by Paul Phipps, University Outreach and Engagement