One of the most important roles a good community newspaper performs is that of a watchdog working on behalf of citizens by identifying problems and bringing them to light.
Sometimes watchdog reporting generates a muted response from public officials — or none at all. So it’s gratifying when our reporting elicits the promise of action to address an important issue.
That’s what happened this week, when Attorney General Josh Hawley announced that his office planned to conduct an audit into how the state’s law enforcement agencies and hospitals handle DNA evidence of sexual assaults.
Hawley’s decision was prompted by a Columbia Missourian story by Anna Brett, whose reporting revealed that police departments, hospitals and crime labs follow inconsistent procedures for testing and cataloging DNA evidence gathered in sexual assault examinations. Evidence is often tested with a lack of urgency, if it’s tested at all. And many agencies and hospitals can’t say how many untested sets of evidence they have.
Challenging and frustrating task
Brett and her editor, Katherine Reed, spent three months trying to get straight answers from law enforcement agencies about how many “kits” of sexual assault evidence were awaiting testing and entry in the DNA database. It was a frustrating task.
They encountered a reluctance to speak about the processes followed by police and crime labs. Many requests for phone interviews went unanswered. Some officials got into a game of semantics about the definition of a backlog.
In addition to these challenges, Brett and Reed found that some police departments were reluctant to submit evidence for testing and databasing when victims were reluctant to pursue prosecution. That’s at odds with the U.S. Department of Justice’s best practice recommendations that law enforcement agencies should submit all sexual assault kits for analysis and should actively investigate cases regardless of the status of the victim or the accused.
This matters because when the DNA database contains evidence from more perpetrators, it’s more likely they might be linked to other crimes, helping police remove more rapists and serial assaulters from the streets, making us safer.
The attorney general announced an ambitious plan to audit every police department, hospital and crime lab in the state to determine the number of untested sexual assault evidence “kits.” We hope this audit will lead to recommendations, possible legislation, and ultimately action to create uniform procedures and to bring urgency to the processing of this evidence.
We’ll watch his office’s work with interest, and I can promise you we will report on his findings.
In the meantime, I’d like to applaud the work of Brett and Reed, and thank them for their diligence and hard work. Watchdog reporting is often a thankless pursuit.
I also want to remind readers of the public service newspapers perform.
In this era, when politicians bash news organizations to lower the credibility of journalists in an attempt to divert negative attention from their own words and actions, we need to take note when we perform our watchdog role well.
Journalists are gratified when they win awards for excellent reporting, writing and photography, and the Missourian and its staff have won truckloads.
But the reward is far more meaningful when our work sparks corrective action, and possibly changes public policies to make our community safer.
Mike Jenner is the Columbia Missourian’s executive editor.