The backlog is slowly growing every year: "The HPD crime lab, which receives about 1,000 DNA requests for testing per year, is testing about 30 to 40 cases per month in its own facility. The lab also is sending 75 sexual assault kits for testing to three laboratories every 60 days, Rios said." Add it up, that means HPD isn't reducing its backlog but instead it's organically growing somewhere at the rate of 130 kits per year. And that was before somebody found 3,000 rape kits they didn't know existed.For years, the Houston Police Department has conceded about 4,000 rape kits — all untested — are stored in a property room freezer, but a recent inventory shows there are potentially thousands more containing never-examined evidence from sexual assault cases.
"I think that's a disgrace and a disservice to women and the victims," said Johnny Mata, an activist with the Greater Houston Coalition for Justice. "What's happening right now is not acceptable"
According to department officials and figures compiled for a grant awarded to HPD from the National Institute of Justice this year, more than 3,000 kits stored in air-conditioned sections of the property room may not have been tested in addition to the 4,220 untested kits in a property room freezer. The estimate of additional kits is based on a random sampling.
HPD had resisted the analysis of why its rape kit backlog grew so large, but if that analysis hadn't been done they'd have never identified the additional rape kits, so in retrospect it's hard to argue with the research. Former chief and current city councilmember said grant money should be spent on testing kits instead of studying reasons for the backlog, but the reason for the study is that law enforcement insists some of the kits don't "need" to be tested when, for example, they already have other evidence sufficient to secure a conviction.
I'm worried, though, that crime lab director Irma Rios appears to be resisting the idea of an independent regional crime lab. At the end of the story, she urged the city council to fund her crime lab independently. Unspoken but clear as a bell was the message, "I don't want HPD's crime lab merged with a regional county entity." Reported the Chron's Anita Hassan:
Rios said she hopes the Harris County Institute of Forensic Science, formerly the medical examiner's office, will be able to help reduce the backlog.
On Tuesday, Harris County Commissioners Court approved a revised pilot program that would allow the institute to process up to 150 DNA cases as well as 435 DWI cases requiring blood-alcohol testing in its first year. The program awaits approval by city officials.
The recent grant money of about $1 million, Rios said, will be used to study factors that have prevented the crime lab from testing thousands of rape kits. A previous $1.1 million federal grant awarded to HPD last year will be used to complete processing on 2,300 untested kits in the property room freezeer
Rios, however, worries that grants may dry up.
"What I prefer is that (the crime lab) is city-funded permanently," Rios said. "It is a stable form of budgeting."
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