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Should Statewide Sexual Assault Kit Tracking Be Optional?

Arizona launched statewide sexual assault evidence kit tracking software in 2019. But Phoenix, the largest city in the state, has opted out of using it. The agency now faces a new sexual assault evidence backlog.

A police officer writing on a small handheld clipboard.
In 2016, Arizona had a sexual assault evidence problem. The state didn’t know how many of the forensic kits containing swabs, test tubes and evidence collection envelopes obtained from survivors at medical facilities were actually sent in for lab testing, or how many kits had yet to be processed.

A task force was assembled to get answers, revealing a backlog of 6,424 sexual assault evidence kits sitting on evidence shelves at law enforcement agencies. A large majority of the unsubmitted kits were located in the state’s main population center, Maricopa County.
State and federal funding was used to test the previously unsubmitted kits, and in 2021 the Joyful Heart Foundation, a nonprofit that advocates for sexual assault investigation reform, reported that Arizona had cleared the backlog.

The state also created mandated reporting requirements, forcing agencies to annually report the number of sexual assault kits they received, how many were submitted to labs for analysis, as well as how many kits weren’t submitted and why.

To aid compliance and increase transparency for survivors, Arizona implemented sexual assault evidence tracking software, the STACS DNA Track-Kit, in 2019 through non-legislative means.

The technology is actively used in 12 other states, and tracks every rape kit from the time it’s collected at a medical facility to the point it’s transferred to a DNA lab for testing. A web portal allows medical staff, investigators, prosecutors and survivors to log in and track the location and status of the kit 24/7.

In 2021, the system was used by 236 sexual assault survivors to track the progress of their kit.

The tracking system’s cost, more than $330,000 annually, is funded through the Arizona Department of Public Safety’s crime lab annual budget. It’s the second most expensive “critical” software used by AZDPS.
While Track-Kit is free for the state’s law enforcement agencies to use, there’s no law requiring agencies to use it, and some departments have opted out of using the program.

The most recent state report from 2021 cited that the Phoenix Police Department and the Mesa Police Department chose not to use Track-Kit, instead tracking kits internally to provide the state an annual report. As the two agencies received a significant portion of sexual assault kits, the Track-Kit portal only provided tracking technology for about 55 percent of kits created in the state that year.
Arizona hasn’t published a more recent sexual assault evidence kit annual survey since 2021, but a Mesa Police Department media representative wrote to Government Technology in an email that the agency started using Track-Kit at the end of 2021, adding that “it was always our goal to utilize the system,” but did not provide any further information about the reason for launching the system more than a year after nearly every other agency in the state.

The Phoenix Police Department still does not use the Track-Kit system, and now faces a new sexual assault backlog of 822 kits. Department representatives did not respond to Government Technology’s request for comment about why it has opted out of using the Track-Kit technology.

“I do think change has happened, I think we’ve made a difference. But it’s troubling, it’s very concerning that we have a backlog in Phoenix again,” said Brooke Fulton, director of sexual violence initiatives for the Arizona Coalition to End Sexual and Domestic Violence.

According to Fulton, when a survivor has a sexual assault evidence exam, if it’s for any other agency than the Phoenix Police Department, a state-issued forensic exam kit is used and the information is loaded into Track-Kit. If the incident occurred in Phoenix, medical staff use a Phoenix-provided evidence kit and don’t offer survivors a tracking system.

“It raises the question of, ‘Why is the entire state of Arizona not using the same process?’” added Fulton, who believes every survivor in the state should have the right to log in to the portal and track their evidence kit.

Arizona is not the only state where tracking systems are not mandated by law, according to data from the Joyful Heart Foundation. While 40 states have tracking systems in place or in development, eight states do not mandate that all law enforcement agencies use them.

“Everybody whose kit is in Phoenix, you don’t necessarily have the same rights as the survivors in the rest of the state. That’s where mandatory participation is really important, because you don’t really have a full system of transparency across the state of Arizona, because you don’t have full participation,” said Ilse Knecht, director of policy and advocacy for the Joyful Heart Foundation.
Nikki Davidson is a data reporter for Government Technology. She’s covered government and technology news as a video, newspaper, magazine and digital journalist for media outlets across the country. She’s based in Monterey, Calif.