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Minneapolis Star Tribune, Nov. 22

Authorities must clean up backlog of untested rape kits

Minneapolis police may have denied justice to hundreds of victims.

In a 2015 report to the state BCA, the Minneapolis Police Department said it had 194 untested rape kits in sexual assault cases. Turns out the real number of unprocessed kits is 1,700 — a shameful discrepancy that may have denied justice to hundreds of rape victims and allowed serial assailants to remain free and attack others.

It’s not that the kits were lost or stolen. They’ve been stored at two locations in the city since they were sent to MPD during the past 20 years, according to police officials. When MPD Chief Medaria Arradondo recently shared the error with the public, he had no explanation for it, calling it an unacceptable “failure in terms of auditing and processing.” Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey termed it an “unjustified mistake.” Both vowed that MPD would work through the backlog and make sure that kind of poor accounting never happens again.

It appears that the inaccurate accounting occurred because of judgment calls made by MPD staff. Some of the rape kits are classified as restricted; that means no police report exists for those because victims didn’t file one. Their evidence was sent to police for storage without names — just an ID number, dates and what hospital, clinic or other medical facility collected the evidence.

When asked to report the numbers of kits, MPD staff made decisions about which ones were worthy of being tested. They used their discretion — the same discretion that has for too long prevented sex assault cases from being properly investigated.

It’s the attitude of some police and prosecutors that was reported in the Star Tribune news series “Denied Justice: When rape is reported and nothing happens.” Published about a year ago, the stories documented failings in the investigation and prosecution of sexual assault throughout Minnesota. The reporting prompted police departments and county prosecutors to make changes in the way they handle cases.

And last year, the Legislature passed a law that now gives police 10 days to retrieve unrestricted exam kits from health care facilities and 60 days to submit them for testing. Police are also required, when asked, to inform victims about the status of their kits and any findings. Minnesota cops aren’t required to test every kit, although they must explain why they don’t in writing.

To be sure, Minneapolis and Minnesota are not alone in years of mishandling rape cases, as an Atlantic story reported this summer. The federal government estimates that at least 200,000 kits sit untested in police evidence rooms. Officials acknowledge, though, that there are likely thousands more because of situations similar to that in Minneapolis. Law enforcement agencies around the nation have either failed to report or underreported this type of evidence.

To correct the problem, MPD recently has joined other state law enforcement agencies to identify and process untested kits. The department hired a victims’ advocate to work with investigators and help survivors navigate the system to report assaults. Since the huge error was uncovered, MPD officials say 60 kits have been sent to the BCA for testing. The remaining kits should be properly categorized as quickly as possible, and those results must be shared with the public.

Experiences of other jurisdictions demonstrate why this matters. Between 2011 and 2013, Cleveland and Cuyahoga County authorities in Ohio started processing their backlog of more than 7,000 untested kits. As a result, prosecutors have indicted nearly 750 rapists in cold cases and convicted more than 400 of them. In Detroit, a stepped-up effort to test the kits helped convict 175 men.

And in Fort Worth, Texas, police sent nearly 1,000 kits to a DNA science project at the University of North Texas. That testing yielded 102 suspects and led to 47 arrests and 36 felony convictions.

Now MPD should follow suit. Increased convictions can bring long-denied justice to victims and protect others from sexual predators. And adding perpetrator information to national databases will help law enforcement put repeat offenders behind bars where they belong.

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The Free Press of Mankato, Nov. 22

Water quality: Farm, city have stake in cleanup

Why it matters: Water quality remains a significant problem in southern Minnesota and improvements will be costly.

An important and long overdue discussion on Minnesota River water quality took place Monday in Mankato.

The Minnesota River Basin Ag-Urban Partnership Forum drew about 200 people from all over southern Minnesota to come to consensus on the scope of the problem and forge solutions.

But talking isn’t doing. And first and foremost we urge the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency and legislators who backed this effort to make sure something gets done.

The event was born of contentious discussions between the city of Mankato and the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency over new PCA requirements for city wastewater treatment that was projected to cost the city $56 million alone. The city of Le Sueur was contesting the rules as it faced a $10 million bill. Mankato and other cities along the Minnesota River were beginning the process of legally contesting the new requirements.

And Mankato leadership secured help from Sen. Nick Frentz, DFL-North Mankato, and Rep. Jeff Brand, DFL-St. Peter. The local legislators proposed legislation last year that would have pushed for lowering those new standards, aimed at phosphorus and nitrates.

Mankato City Manager Pat Hentges had been leading the charge with the river cities, arguing the new requirements were costly and wouldn’t significantly improve water quality. He argued that MPCA also look at non-point pollution, which comes from farm field runoff or septic systems. He called for a comprehensive approach. That idea has always made sense to us and seems to be gaining momentum.

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The forum allowed participants who included environmentalists, city officials and farmers, to hear from cities and farmers about the challenges of practices to reduce pollution. Audience members then formed small groups to come up with solutions that offered the best chance for success.

We hope farmers and agribusiness see they have to be part of the solution. Cities, too, can control their development policies to consider the environment and water quality before they allow unchecked and unbridled housing, commercial or industrial projects.

One thing is certain. The water quality in the Minnesota River and its tributaries won’t get cleaner on its own. The Ag-Urban forum was a good start, but now we need to see solutions. And sooner than later.

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St. Cloud Times, Nov. 22

Forums explaining hate crimes can help community come together

Making residents more informed, more educated, more aware and more alert.

Those are key objectives of the St. Cloud Human Rights Commission as it coordinates three public forums about hate crimes by spring 2020.

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The first of those — which focused on acknowledging bias and offering community support — was held Wednesday at St. Cloud State University. The next, planned for this winter, is about law enforcement dealing with hate crimes. A third session focusing on community dialogue is envisioned for spring.

As longtime commission member Judy Foster pointed out Thursday, forums that inform, educate and raise awareness of hate crimes will ultimately help the commission's main goal: show residents how they can be more supportive of each other and make the St. Cloud area a more welcoming community.

As this Editorial Board has noted for more than a decade, the best way to reduce cultural tensions in this (or any) community is to get to know your neighbors instead of defining those individuals on assumptions and stereotypes. That's a two-way street.

And that's exactly why all metro residents should watch for more details about the two remaining forums and plan to attend them.

Walking the talk

Foster said an exact time and date for the forum focused on law enforcement is in the works, as are its panelists. The idea, though, is for it to be similar to Wednesday's forum, which featured National Council of Jewish Women Minnesota Executive Director Beth Gendler, the Center for American-Islamic Relations Minnesota Executive Director Jaylani Hussein and OutFront Minnesota organizer Justin Lewandowski.

The panelists talked at length about acknowledging bias and offering community support when dealing with hate in any form. In fact, Foster said Wednesday's forum at St. Cloud State University included a real-time example of that very principle.

An unidentified person aimed to create division between CAIR and OutFront Minnesota by selectively distributing flyers highlighting how a handful of nations led by extremist Muslim leaders treat same-sex sexual activity as a crime, even punishable by death.

Foster — who, along with Times journalists covering the event did not get a flyer — said the panelists clearly stated that they stand united in fighting all forms of hate and in supporting each other's organizations.

What's next?

Looking ahead, the goal of the second forum is to have a panel of law enforcement leaders from several jurisdictions explain the legal definition of hate crimes, how they are tracked, the level of offenses involved and the potential penalties.

It's important to note that focusing on the topic is not tied to a documented increase (or decrease) locally of hate crimes. Rather, becoming more informed about hate crimes by experts in law enforcement can help residents be better educated about what behaviors are (and are not) hate crimes.

As Foster rightly points out, knowing what constitutes a hate crime can help people better identify potential hate speech.

The third forum will focus on community dialogue, with the goal of participants talking about issues covered in the previous two forums and their perceptions about hate crimes in the St. Cloud metro area.

Again, residents should look for details about the two upcoming forums and plan to attend one or both.

The more informed, more educated, more aware residents are, the more ability people have to understand and support each other.

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