DOWNTOWN — More than 12,000 rape kits — the physical evidence collected after a sexual assault — have yet to be tested in Los Angeles County, with 485 in the custody of the Santa Monica Police Department, according to a report by Human Rights Watch.
The 68-page report, “Testing Justice: The Rape Kit Backlog in Los Angeles City and County,” found that it can take as long as 12 months for an investigating officer to receive tests results on samples of semen, saliva and other genetic material gathered from victim’s bodies following alleged attacks. Other rape kits go untested and are so old that the legal time limit to prosecute has expired in hundreds of cases.
“Women who are raped have a right to expect police to do all they can to thoroughly investigate their case, but in L.A. they often feel betrayed to learn that their rape kits are never even tested,” said Sarah Tofte, a researcher with Human Rights Watch and author of the report. “And in some cases, failure to test means that a rapist who could have been arrested will remain free.”
To permanently eliminate the backlog, Human Rights Watch is demanding more DNA analysts be hired, along with expanding testing facilities, purchasing more efficient equipment and creating a new DNA evidence tracking system.
The SMPD sends its rape kits to the county’s crime lab for processing free of charge, as do other outlying police departments. The report found that 47 police agencies, in addition to the LAPD and the Sheriff’s Department, are struggling to process rape kits, with nearly 2,740 sitting untested in storage freezers.
The problem is a national one, as law enforcement agencies struggle to find funding to increase their DNA analyst staff. The most recent federal Census of Publicly Funded Crime Laboratories — released in 2008 using data collected in 2005 — shows that during 2005, public crime labs saw their DNA backlog double from the beginning to the end of the year, and that public crime labs across the country would need to increase their DNA analyst staff by 73 percent just to keep up.
Nowhere is the backlog more severe than in Los Angeles County. The accumulation of rape kits in Los Angeles County is due to a combination of police discretion regarding which rape kits get tested; a lack of financial commitment to testing; and the length of time it took officials to acknowledge the nature and extent of the problem, Human Rights Watch said.
The backlog grew even as police received millions of federal dollars from the Debbie Smith DNA Backlog Grant, a program Congress created to address rape kit backlogs, Tofte said.
“Failing to test rape kits denies justice to women who’ve suffered sexual violence,” Tofte said. “If officials had spent federal money to test more kits, they might have prevented future rapes and allowed for prosecution in cases that are now beyond the statute of limitations.”
Some law enforcement agencies, including the SMPD, questioned the way Tofte calculated the figures, which agencies provided in response to her requests under the Public Records Act.
SMPD Lt. Dan Salerno, who overseas the Criminal Investigations Section, said the figure listed in the report — 485 — represents the total number of kits in SMPD’s evidence room, not the total number of kits still to be tested. Salerno put that number around 270. Some are kits that will never be sent to the crime lab because the alleged victim may have recanted their statement and the case was dropped. Salerno said the SMPD did not have the personnel to accurately count the number of kits to be tested when the records request was submitted.
“I would prefer not to have a detective spend a week or so just to get the numbers [rather] than work on cases,” Salerno said.
To address the backlog, the SMPD over a year ago created a cold case unit specifically dedicated to sex crimes and homicides. A detective has also been assigned to comb through those rape kits that still fall within the statute of limitations to bring the backlog down. The SMPD also has the option of sending new kits to a private lab in Orange County for processing using grant money, Salerno said.
The SMPD also has a policy to send out kits for DNA testing immediately as opposed to in years past when DNA testing wasn’t as advanced and therefore not as crucial to investigations.
“The best we could get back then was blood typing,” Salerno said. “Investigations then really relied on whether or not the victim could identify [their attacker.] ”
With advances in DNA technology, Salerno and his team of officers are making sure to send kits out quickly and aggressively investigate new cases to see if there are links. Using a semen sample, officers were able to recently connect a man in custody to at least two attacks.
There were 21 reported rapes in Santa Monica in 2008, 30 the year prior, according to figures released by the SMPD.
Gail Abarbanel, director of the Rape Treatment Center at the Santa Monica-UCLA Medical Center, said the amount of untested rape kits represented a “public safety emergency,” that needs to be addressed immediately in order to remove dangerous sex offenders from the streets.
Failing to test the kits has “devastating consequences” for victims, who must make the difficult and personal decision to report the crime and be tested, only to feel betrayed when the evidence is not processed.
“It just shows how we still have so much discrimination against rape victims in the criminal justice system,” Abarbanel said. “It’s low on the priority list.”
Organizations like Human Rights Watch have helped raise awareness about the severity of the issue, Abarbanel said, and should lead to reform.
Abarbanel said the SMPD has been responsive, working closely with the center to investigate rape cases quickly.
“Every police department doesn’t send a detective right away,” she said. “Santa Monica is on it. They really do outstanding work.”
It is Human Rights Watch’s goal to not only address the backlog, but change the way sex crimes, particularly rape, are investigated.
For the complete report, go to www.hrw.org/node/81826.