Saturday, December 17, 2011

Audit discovers thousands more unexamined rape kits at Houston PD

The more the Houston crime lab inventories its backlog of untested rape kits, they're discovering thousands of biological samples they didn't even know they had. Reported the Houston Chronicle ("More rape kits than thought remain untested at HPD," Dec. 15):
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.

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 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:
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.

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.
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.

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.


Soronel Haetir said...

I would certainly think 'examined' and 'tested' are not synonymous in this context. Another reason beside those you mention that a sample might be examined but not tested is a belief that the samples won't yield anything useful.

I would, however, say that to have materials that have not even been examined may indeed indicate a bigger problem than having a bunch of kits that have not been tested.

Anonymous said...

Yet HPD bemoans the fact that they can't test crack pipes for residue cases. What is HPD trying to hide and who are they covering up for? A high ranking officer who moonlights as a serial rapist? I'd bet my life that if these rape kits are ever analyzed several HPD officers are implicated. Watch and see..

rodmsith said...

LOL sorry anon 12:23 will NEVER happen. any tests like that will have long since been removed and destroyed with no way to know for sure becasue of the completly screwed up way they have been kept!

Anonymous said...

Until city voters make testing these kits a priority, they will languish as they have since such kits were invented decades ago. There was a huge backlog when Lanier kicked Whitmire to the curb, when Brown succeeded him, and when White took over from him. In each case, the mayor and city council were made aware of the growing number of kits yet they did nothing, even the media reports generating such limited reaction that it wasn't enough for them to worry about.

It wasn't about conspiracies to protect anyone, just the same apathy that most have for all the details needing tending to.

Anonymous said...

Discussions of rape kit testing backlogs tend to be fairly superficial, and fairly quickly jump to the conclusion that all kits need to be tested. But there are public policy issues related to the best and most effective use of public safety funds that get overlooked.

The experience of the Los Angeles County crime lab as presented at the 2010 NIJ conference is worth thinking about ( Because of intense criticism of the backlog by vocal interest groups they adopted the "test everything" approach, and tested 4,028 backlogged cases at a total cost of $1.7 million. That testing resulted in a number of CODIS hits, but most of those were not of prosecutorial or investigative value, in that that these were adjudicated cases where the issue was consent, not identity of the alleged perpretrator.

The bottom line was that out of 4,028 backlogged cases tested 2 cases were solved, at a bottom line cost of $850,000 per case.

In a perfect world with infinite resources, this would not be a problem. But in the real world, where pots of money are not infinite you have to wonder about all the benefits that might have come from spending that $1.7 million differently.

Anonymous said...

Rape kit testing used to cost a lot more so the city formed a small group that oversaw which cases were tested and which were not. The kits that were set aside were almost always ones where consent was not an issue (both parties agreed there was sex) or the witness kept changing their story/was not credible or reliable.

Given the numbers reported in the local media regarding current costs, it would cost far, far more than a couple million bucks to test the backlog for DNA evidence and I have to concur with Anon 3:15 in prioritizing scarce resources.

It is my understanding that ANY TIME someone was in jail for an offense and such a kit was available to test, IT WAS TESTED as part of their protocol but rape cases do not live and die on DNA alone no matter what a shyster tells you. By all means test every kit, just tell us what else will be cut from the city budget to pay for it (those in the county having no say in the matter unless they want to offer to test the kits for a reduced price).