Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Houston PD finds thousands more untested rape kits

The Houston Police Department not only has thousands of untested rape kits stored at the crime lab, until recently nobody could even accurately guesstimate how many there were, with about 3,000 more found as a result of research funded by a federal grant, reports the Houston Chronicle ("Crime lab finds another 3,000-plus untested rape kits," Aug, 10):
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.
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.

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."
The string of seemingly incompetent episodes at the HPD crime lab just continues to grow like a bad sitcom, even years after the initial problems were discovered. Certainly C.O. Bradford - who was chief when the crime lab scandal broke - has little credibility arguing grant money shouldn't be spent on investigating failures at the crime lab. And Rios' comments let me know that there is institutional resistance from HPD over the whole regional crime lab idea. These are the same folks who've been telling us for years, "Move along, nothing to see here," and now it turns out they don't even know how many rape kits were or weren't tested? Yikes!

See related Grits posts


Anonymous said...

Grits said: 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."

Clear as a bell?? You seem to be reading a different article than the one I read. There's nothing in article that remotely suggests that extrapolation.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

5:50, the county wants to push forward with a regional lab but the city's been balking. Rios arguing for independently funding her own crime lab may explain the hesitation. That's not the same as endorsing the proposal for regional collaboration. I think her language is probably significant.

Anonymous said...

Some people need to go to jail for this incompetence. Rios can learn from behind bars. This is a shame. What about all the forgotten victims og these cases?

Anonymous said...

Is there a possibility that the testing of said "rape kits" could actually free another innocent inmate? Talk about "victims".

Anonymous said...

GFB, reread the article. Rios's comment is in regard to the funding of the project using grant funds. She is saying that it should be funded as part of the regular budget, and not with stop-gap grant moneys that will dry up. Funding by the city at appropriate levels would be needed regardless of whether the lab is run by HPD, run as an independent city department, or run as an independent regional lab. Whatever the organizational structure, the city will only get what it funds. Currently, the city doesn't consider testing backlogged rape kits as important enough to fund on its own. Your beef is not with Rios, who is not a policy maker. Your beef is with the city council that establishes spending priorities. Anonymous, 5:50.

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Anonymous said...

Crime labs should be completely independent of law enforcement, and have civilian technicians who can be held responsible for any mistakes, whether intentional or not.

Irma Rios was FIRED from the DPS because of incompetence. Only HPD would have ever given this woman a position of responsibility.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous 1:30. Rios was very definitely NOT fired from DPS. Someone gave you bad information. Before she went to the HPD, she was a long term supervisor of the biology program at the main DPS laboratory in Austin. She was brought into the HPD program after that program hit rock bottom. She was hired as a civilian employee to manage the rebuilding of that program. It is perfectly reasonable to argue that labs should be independent of police agencies. But the argument isn't advanced by slandering good people who are trying to do a difficult job.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

10:17, the city must pay either way, but of those options Rios suggested the crime lab remain at the city instead of moving forward with a regional lab. And while she's not on city council, staff input matters in these situations. I think she probably said what she meant.

9:39, that's a significant possibility.

And thanks, 6:06, for responding to that false meme. You're exactly right.

Anonymous said...

Of the greatest concern is that the crime lab just "finds" another 3000 kits.

Were they "lost" before?

How often is evidence "found" in a crime lab?

Maybe it's only convenient for some items to be "lost" and some to be "found".

If the Director can't keep track of the evidence that enters his/her lab, or doesn't give the public accurate information regarding the evidence in the lab, then that Director no longer needs to be Director.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

"Were they 'lost' before?"

Good point! They're the same place now they've always been, they just hadn't included those 3,000+ in past inventories. Whether that's "lost," "mislabeled," or whatever, quien sabe? Bottom line, they thought there were 4,200 and now know there are more than 7,000.

Texas Grits said...

I want Perry to start praying for us to increase DNA testing, I think we could we could wipe out crime with Perry praying