The Houston Police Department's backlog of untested rape kits totals between 6,000 and 7,000 - 50 percent more than what officials previously acknowledged, according to a memo from Chief Charles McClelland.The data resulted from "a two-phase, $1.14 million award from the NIJ. The bulk of the money will go toward determining the reasons rape kits go untested and how to reduce the backlog more quickly." The Chron story, by Zain Shauk, reminds readers that:
HPD for years has insisted that the backlog of untested rape kits was around 4,000. The details from the chief's memo confirm a Houston Chronicle report that the backlog likely was far greater.
The backlog also is likely to continue to grow. According to McClelland's memo, HPD receives some 930 new rape kits each year. HPD officials previously have said the department is able to test only 30 to 40 a month.
The department conducted an audit that determined that between 16,000 and 17,000 rape kits dating back to the 1980s are stored in HPD's property division, the memo said. Of those, roughly a third, or between 6,000 and 7,000, have not been examined.I'm assuming, but am not certain, that the phrase "examined" in the story is a synonym for "tested." Conceivably, though, the department could "examine" a sample but decide not to test it - e.g., where it was contaminated by water damage from a leaky roof or where consent, not identity, was the central issue in a sexual-assault case. If "examined" and "tested" are not synonymous, the number of untested rape kits could be even higher than 7,000.
DNA testing at HPD's crime lab was temporarily suspended in 2002, after an independent audit revealed shoddy forensic work, including unqualified personnel, lax protocols and facilities that included a roof that leaked rainwater onto evidence.
Since the lab resumed operations five years ago, the roof and other interior problems have been fixed. The lab also has reduced or eliminated backlogs in areas such as narcotics and ballistics.
Cutting down the rape kit backlog has been a challenge because of a lack of resources and personnel, HPD officials have said.
There have been mostly muted criticisms of the NIJ grant to HPD, particularly from outgoing city councilmember Jolanda Jones, for merely assessing the reasons for the backlog instead of just paying for testing to clear it up (though there are also some testing funds included in the grant). But with similar backlogs cropping up all over the state and nation, this work is extremely important. Police departments and crime labs need to create practical protocols for when testing is necessary, when it's not, and what types of cases should be prioritized given scarce resources. That's what the Houston grant is working toward, and IMO it's important, cutting edge work. At a minimum, by focusing on assessment instead of just testing, now we know there are half again more unexamined rape kits than HPD knew about just a few months ago. That's a start.