Welcome to 10 Brilliant Dallas Women, a pop-up online series about 10 awesome women making Dallas a better place to live.
Sergeant Amy Mills is busy. Not so busy that she can’t spare some time to talk about the job she loves, but her brisk gait and purposeful demeanor are an instant giveaway that she’s a woman on a mission. And that mission — to resolve the backlog of rape kits in Dallas — is a job so monumental that most of us wouldn’t even know where to begin. But despite the obvious magnitude of the project, the Dallas Police Department Sex Assault Unit, under Mills’ leadership, has submitted 2,356 kits for laboratory testing since last August. This is a significant dent in a logjam that consists of 4,140 sets of evidence, all of which had been gathering dust in DPD’s property room until late last year.
Those 4,140 kits represent much more than the evidence inside them: they represent lives in limbo. Assembling them requires re-traumatizing sexual assault victims, who have to undergo an intensive examination by a nurse certified in evidence retrieval. Once medically stabilized, victims spend somewhere in the neighborhood of an hour under harsh lights being probed and swabbed and plucked and photographed in a process that is demeaning and painful. Sergeant Mills is adamant that this process should never be in vain. “If you endure that invasive exam when all you want to do is take a shower, brush your teeth — take a drink of water, even … then we owe it to you to process that evidence, to be an advocate for you, and to let you have some sense of closure.”
Mills makes it clear that the backlogged kits didn’t stay untested due to negligence or lack of regard for crime victims. In fact, DPD is one of the few departments that keeps evidence past the statute of limitations — the property room actually has rape kits that date back 30 years. But for a variety of reasons, too large a number remained untouched. Sometimes, the survivors weren’t willing or able to participate in investigations. Funding and personnel limitations were often a factor. And, Mills says, investigators have only recently begun to understand the full evidentiary value of the kits. Obviously, justice for the victim of the assault is a driving factor, but there’s an element of prevention also. Sexual assault perpetrators are rarely one-time offenders. Mills details burglary cases, domestic assaults, sex offenses and even murders that were solved by evidence obtained from a single rape kit. “We’re finding out how intertwined these crimes are,” she says, “It’s amazing how one victim’s evidence can link us to so many other investigative leads.”
The rape kit issue became a national one when an assistant prosecutor in Detroit, Kym Worthy, brought to light that over 11,000 kits had been untested in that jurisdiction; a number of advocacy organizations took notice and began to raise funds to end that backlog and others across the nation. As a result of the increased attention, a grant was made through the Texas Department of Public Safety to fund Dallas PD’s efforts to test the cases — at approximately $500 a piece. The money will allow testing back to 1996, and Mills is hopeful she can eventually go back further.
When the 15-year DPD veteran is told she’s being included in a list of Dallas’ most brilliant women, Mills demurs. “I just do the work,” she insists. “There’s nothing special about that.” It’s an understatement that she’s done the work — an impressive juggling act involving most nights and weekends between August of 2014 and April of this year. She still had her regular duties as supervisor of seven detectives in the sex assault unit to attend to, so she’d come in at 6 a.m. and tackle a case or two, then stay late and plow through as many as she could. Each case is painstaking to review: files are examined thoroughly to determine if the associated evidence is eligible for testing, and if so, they are flagged and categorized so that the lab knows what to look for. In an eight-month period, she determined that over 2,000 of the kits were eligible for submission, amassing untold hours of overtime (“No idea,” she says when asked how much time she logged), occupying her mind during her early morning runs and waking her up at night.
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And her hard work is having a tangible effect. The tests are coming back from the lab; DNA profiles have been entered in CODIS, the FBI’s national database; and so far over 30 percent have resulted in a match. When those matches occur, Mills triages the cases: Some are just confirmations of a case that’s already been adjudicated, so no action is required. Others identify a known suspect who is capable of committing further assaults: Mills puts one of her seven detectives on those cases immediately. She’s confident that retesting that mountain of cases results in prevention of further assaults, particularly when she’s able to affect an arrest. And she also loves being able to call a survivor and tell them that it’s over — that she or he can have peace of mind knowing the assailant can’t repeat the crime.
Beyond arrests and overtime, Mills offers something else to the citizens of Dallas, particularly the women and men victimized by a sexual assault: Her efforts and her advocacy change the dialogue about rape. She — and her detectives, who she’s quick to credit for their hard work juggling this project alongside their current cases — make it clear that what has happened to these people matters, regardless of whether the victims are college students or prostitutes; drug addicts or professionals. “People understand that they are not forgotten; that they didn’t endure this for nothing. Ultimately, I think this means that more people will report these types of crimes because they know that we believe them. They know now that we want to give them peace of mind and to do everything we can. Hopefully that means they trust us to help them. I’m just sorry it took so long to get to this point.”
Mills’ ultimate goal is to zero out that backlog, though it’s a time-consuming and expensive process. It takes six months to process each kit, she says, adding that she’s got a couple she’d really like to expedite through the lab in order to get a particular offender off the streets. Expediting, she explains, costs extra. Her eyes gleam with a particular resolve, and she blazes out of the DPD media relations office on yet another mission: to send an email requesting those funds. You get the feeling that she’ll get them.