Thursday, September 11, 2008

About those rape kits

Earlier this week, reporters and bloggers looking into Sarah Palin's record as mayor came up with a horrifying story from the local Wasilla paper The Frontiersman. The story was that under Palin, the police department of Wasilla had a policy of billing the victims of rape for the medical tests used by the police in their investigation. The reason for the original news article was that the Alaska state legislature had passed a law forbidding police departments from continuing that practice. Most cop show fans will be familiar with the term "rape kit" used for these exams. What the television dramas don't mention is that these exams and related lab work cost between $300 and $1200 apiece. That's a big burden to drop on someone who is already traumatized by being the victim of a violent crime. The new law required police departments to pay the costs themselves.
The governor signed House Bill 270, sponsored by Rep. Eric Croft, D-Anchorage, outside the Sexual Assault Response Team (SART) exam room at Alaska Regional Hospital. In attendance at the signing were members of victims advocate groups, law enforcement agencies and legislators.

The new law makes it illegal for any law enforcement agency to bill victims or victims insurance companies for the costs of examinations that take place to collect evidence of a sexual assault or determine if a sexual assault did occur.

While the Alaska State Troopers and most municipal police agencies have covered the cost of exams, which cost between $300 to $1,200 apiece, the Wasilla police department does charge the victims of sexual assault for the tests. Wasilla Police Chief Charlie Fannon does not agree with the new legislation, saying the law will require the city and communities to come up with more funds to cover the costs of the forensic exams. "In the past we've charged the cost of exams to the victims insurance company when possible. I just don't want to see any more burden put on the taxpayer," Fannon said. According to Fannon, the new law will cost the Wasilla Police Department approximately $5,000 to $14,000 a year to collect evidence for sexual assault cases.

The response to the article has been incredulous and loud. Obviously, outrage has been the primary response on one side of the aisle. On the other side three primary responses have emerged. First, simple dismissal. Any criticism of Palin is a smear, negative campaigning, and motivated by sexism.

The second response is an argument from ignorance. The respondent refuses to believe it could be that bad.
The only conceivable possibility is that there may have been cases for which insurance didn't pay (the article provides no evidence of this), in which case the most likely scenario would be the department paying as in the city of Palmer. ... There is no evidence in the slightest than any[one] ever had to pay a cent, and this would be obvious and easy for the newspaper to have checked - and I'm sure the DNC's team of operatives would have turned up something better than this hit job if there were any such thing to find.

The author here has no facts beyond those in The Frontiersman piece but makes assumptions about what must have happened and denigrates the article as a "hit job." Note: the DNC "team of operatives" he refers to is a Republican urban legend. There is no DNC team of operatives as described in his link.

The third defense is the bad underling defense. The respondent says that if it did happen, it wasn't Palin's fault, she couldn't have known about it, and that it was the police chief's fault. This response also depends on making assumptions without presenting any new facts. This ignores the fact that she hired the police chief and that in politics responsibility flows upward, not down.

No one seems to know if anyone was ever actually charged for their rape kit. Charlie Fannon, the police chief Palin hired after firing Irl Stambaugh, said, "In the past we've charged the cost of exams to the victims insurance company when possible." Does that imply it wasn't always possible? If so, what who paid? Tony Knowles, the governor at the time, and Eric Croft, the primary sponsor of the bill, both say the bill was specifically aimed at Wasilla. The reporter who wrote the original Frontiersman article that started this whole brou-ha-ha made a rather clear statement that "the Wasilla police department does charge the victims of sexual assault for the tests." Is the certainty of this statement based on it having happened or on her understanding of Fannon's policy? Again, no one really knows.

The one truth in this is that during Palin's term as mayor, the police chief she hired had a policy of placing the responsibility for paying for a vital investigative tool on the victims rather than paying for it out of police funds. Did he also require the victims of shootings to pay for ballistic testing of guns and bullets? Singling out rape for this kind of treatment certainly indicates a gross insensitivity toward the victims and probably that he placed a lower value on solving these crimes than on others.

This is an issue where Palin and McCain are in perfect agreement. In 1994, John McCain voted in the minority against legislation -- pushed by Joe Biden -- that helped put an end to charging rape victims for sexual assault exams. That bill, H.R.3355: the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, provided funding for a variety of law enforcement programs, but would have denied funds to any police department that billed victims for their rape kits. As recently as 2007 McCain voted against reauthorizing that program. There is far more reason to absolve McCain than Palin. In his defense, the 1994 bill was a large bill with many provisions; the rape kit section was one among many. Palin has no such defense.

Much, if not most, of the bump that McCain received from adding Palin to his ticket has come from white women. If there was any strategy at all involved in picking her, and she wasn't just the lucky result of a tantrum McCain threw when they told him he couldn't have Lieberman, this was it. The Palin bump is the last hurrah of the disgruntled PUMAs. Unfortunately for McCain, Palin's position on the issues that the press usually identifies as "women's issues" is not good. When the novelty of her wears off, many of the women who moved to the R column last week will move back to the D column. But they won't move without help. The Obama campaign needs to move agressively to reestablish the Democratic brand superiority on those women's issues

No comments: