Monday, April 09, 2012

Most TX police agencies yet to report on rape kit backlogs

Most police departments have not yet complied with a statutory deadline to report the number of untested rape kits in their possession as required under SB 1636 by Sen. Wendy Davis, reported the Texas Observer's Patrick Michels recently ("Backlogging the backlog," April 4).
DPS records obtained by the Observer show that as of January 23—three months after the deadline—just 86 of the state’s 2,647 law enforcement agencies had reported their backlogs.

The 86 include some of Texas’ largest police departments, like San Antonio (2,077 untested rape kits) and El Paso (56). But DPS records don’t show that Dallas, Houston or Fort Worth police have reported their totals to the state. The Texas Department of Criminal Justice reported 16 untested kits from alleged prison rapes.

In all, DPS records account for 5,686 untested kits in active investigations—and that number will only increase.
Though they haven't yet turned in their data, SB 1636's bill analysis included an estimate for Dallas: In Dallas, of the estimated 7,000 to 9,000 rape kits collected from 1996 to 2010, about 40 percent have been or will be submitted for testing." And in Houston, between 6-7,000 untested rape kits, according to a recent audit. So by the time the data is fully collected, it wouldn't surprise me to see the total statewide rise to 25,000 or more.

One element of the bill threatens to overwhelm crime labs if there were actually enough resources to comply with it (there are not) - a new requirement that all rape kits must be submitted for testing and cross-checked with the SCOTUS database:
Cassie Carradine, DNA supervisor at the Austin PD crime lab, says the city is caught up with all the kits it needs to test. All that’s left are kits that aren’t necessary for testing for a particular crime.

“The problem is that the definition of ‘active’ in the law is not a realistic definition of ‘active.’ The law says everything is active unless the statute of limitations has expired or it [the rape complaint] was a lie,” Carradine says. Carradine says it costs between $1,200 and $1,500 to test a single kit.

“The sex crimes detectives do not consider those ‘active’ cases. They're not active, and it’s not something that the police department is pursuing,“ she says. “I think it's unfortunate that the law has taken any police work out of this.”

Amarillo Police Lt. Martin Birkenfeld has a similar view. His department reported 950 untested kits—the second-largest total reported to the state so far—but he says the kits that haven’t been submitted are ones detectives haven’t needed to pursue.

“I realize that we're not perfect and I'm sure we've missed some over the years. But those that are of evidentiary value—historically, we've sent those because we want to get the results.”

“Well now according to the new guidelines, we're just sending everything. ... To me it's just not worth the cost, because it's not going to change what's been done in the investigation.”
It’s something of a moot point for now, anyway, because Birkenfeld says their local DPS lab in Lubbock told them to wait until they’re told to turn in their kits. Birkenfeld says that hasn’t happened yet, days after the deadline S.B. 1636 set for turning in all untested evidence. Davis, the law’s author, hasn’t been available to comment, but it looks like both DPS and local agencies have blown the few deadlines left in this unfunded law.
Before the new law passed, wait times for DNA testing at DPS ran around eight months, according to published reports, and this will only increase such delays.

There are a lot of reasons rape kits aren't tested. In some cases, for example, the suspect admits having sex with the victim and the question is whether there was consent. Identity isn't an issue there and DNA testing wouldn't help the case. OTOH, in the past, often kits weren't tested because police had no suspect to whom they could try to match it. With the existence of the ever-growing CODIS DNA database, some of those cases might be solved if the evidence were tested. Also, testing may not have been done in cases where a conviction was obtained based on eyewitness ID, so it's possible more than a few new innocence cases might arise if the backlog were comprehensively assessed.

Houston PD has been analyzing their backlog as part of a federally funded study to determine the various reasons DNA kits go untested, and when that work is complete it may be possible to develop more nuanced, standardized protocols for when rape kits may or may not need to be processed.


Anonymous said...

As the truth comes out, those who accused the city of Houston of being the only major city in Texas with a backlog of untested rape kits are sure looking silly. Just like the claims that Houston's crime lab was the only one with any problems (to date, over 99% of all HPD crime lab tests retested have confirmed the same results, most of the remaining ones inconclusive due in part to better tests now available), the stench of partisan politics is now evident.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

"those who accused the city of Houston of being the only major city in Texas with a backlog of untested rape kits are sure looking silly"

No one anywhere, at any time, has ever made such a claim. What a bizarre statement. And what in heaven's name does testing rape kits have to do with "partisan politics"?

Lee said...

I propose that the statute of limitations has long run out on many of these justice

Anonymous said...

Scott, if you don't understand the statement, it is because your head has been in the sand. In Harris County, the claim has been made by those in the GOP that Houston is the only major city with such a backlog because it has been led by Democrats. This is a rally cry heard frequently and loudly at events, the reality being that almost all of the backlogged cases took place in the county limits too but they refuse to assist in testing. That is why they have no substantial backlog themselves, shuffling off any case possible to the city.

rodsmith said...

what i think is both cute and sad. Is ONLY COPS and POLITICIANS think laws are optional. But have no problem dropping the HAMMER on anyone else CRIMINAL enough to think the same!

Gritsforbreakfast said...

12:28, Houston's backlog only came to light because Dallas identified a backlog first, began testing under Craig Watkins, and found a bunch of innocence cases. San Antonio identified a significant backlog before Houston did. If anybody - Republican or Democrat - ever said it was only Houston they're an uninformed fool. I'm certain you can't quote a single source saying that publicly. It's just not the case.

Anonymous said...

It's worth noting that there is a bit of a disconnect between the statute and reality. The statute requires testing so that DNA profiles can be entered into CODIS and crimes can be solved. However, CODIS doesn't permit all DNA profiles to be entered. Profiles can only be entered into CODIS if they come from perpetrators of crimes. So if a complainant is not cooperating with an investigation, and the police are doubtful that a crime was committed, then any DNA profile from the kit can't be entered into CODIS. Similarly, if the complainant had a consensual partner who could be the source of the DNA profile from the kit, then the profile can't be put into CODIS because it may not have come from the perpetrator. If the consensual partner doesn't want to cooperate or can't be located, then the testing on the kit is wasted time and money.

Lee said...

Anybody know about the statute of limitations?

Thomas R. Griffith said...

Hey Grits, it looks like the reason for dragging the feet is best said below.

"testing may not have been done in cases where a conviction was obtained based on eyewitness ID, so it's possible more than a few new innocence cases might arise if the backlog were comprehensively assessed."

Which is exactly why I call bullshit on allowing the fox to guard the hen house & call attention to anyone that advocates for him.

Anonymous said...

"Women go to the hospital and their bodies are a crime scene and treated as such," said Bart, who still lives in Texas. "For these kits then to just to sit in a laboratory or in police vaults or wherever they sit, denies victims of sexual assault any opportunity for justice. I just wonder how many more there are?"

Bart and other rape victims spoke recently to The Associated Press in hope that other women about to go through the same painful process in Detroit learn from their experiences and know they are not alone. Detroit has begun testing some of its rape kits.

The women – who agreed to use their names for this story – know testing years-old rape kits holds no guarantee the attacker will be found and brought to justice. They also know the tangled legal process can reopen wounds that took years to heal and send horrific memories of the assault flooding back.
According to some estimates, between 180,000 and 400,000 rape kits remain untested nationwide, despite DNA technology that can swiftly link rapists to crimes.

Between 9,000 and 11,300 rape kits stored by Detroit police were collected two years ago by Michigan State Police.

Little concern is shown these women, so it's no wonder that most women don't bother to report these assaults. The rapist is allowed to rape at will repeatedly. Witness keep quite, not wanting to snitch.

Anonymous said...


When talking SA kit backlog, it needs to be recognized that for most agencies we are talking about a backlog that accumulated over 30-40 years. That fact might prompt someone out there to suggest that, if the agencies had tested the kits when they were collected, then there wouldn't be a backlog. However, for most of that period the best and most prudent practice was to store the evidence and do nothing. The serological testing that was in use before DNA testing came into use in the late 1980s didn't allow for databasing and identification of otherwise unidentifiable suspects, and was at best a moderately useful exclusionary test. If evidence had been consumed at that time for serological testing, then there wouldn't have been anything left to test now when databasing is feasible.

Similarly, the first generation of DNA tests consisted of some highly discriminating tests that were not very sensitive, and some very sensitive tests that were not very discrimination. Only the former were useful for databasing, and there were a lot of low-level sexual assault samples that were consumed trying to get profiles that could be put into the databases that were available at that time. That evidence is now gone, and in many cases it produced a perpetrator's DNA profile that is sitting in a database, but can't be compared to newly generated profiles because the technology has changed and profiles generated with the new technology (which is both sensitive and discriminating) can't be compared to profiles generated with the older technology.

Implementation of the current iteration for DNA testing technologies began in about 1998, and wasn't fully adopted by laboratories until several years later. Only at that time did it become good practice to start going back and testing these old, backlogged cases, most of which had passed the statute of limitations.

So up to about 10-12 years ago (at which time there was a 30 year backlog in untested kits), the best thing that an agency could do was to store kits properly, preserve the evidence, and wait for the technology to get stabilized.

Since then, some agencies have done a better job than others in addressing the backlog. But that is entirely tied to the willingness of mainly local jurisdictions to devote financial resources to the problem. It shouldn't be surprising to anyone that arguing to spend hundred of thousands of dollars to test evidence in mainly non-prosecutable cases has always been a tough sell at the local level.

One thing that is noteworthy regarding Texas's most recent push is that the legislature has allocated no money to this effort. The more things change, the more things stay the same, apparently. And as usual in Texas, that means both cheap and unthoughtful.