PUBLIC SAFETY FACILITY — After facing considerable criticism for failing to process over 450 rape kits that may contain critical DNA evidence, the Santa Monica Police Department has dramatically changed its policy regarding the kits and has processed nearly 75 percent of those in storage, police said.

Under the new policy, all rape kits — the physical evidence collected after an alleged sexual assault — are sent to the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department for processing, whereas before it was left up to detectives which kits would be sent or placed in storage.

“We are 100 percent committed to processing all sexual assault evidence, regardless of whether the case is prosecutable or not,” said SMPD Lt. Mike Beautz, executive officer of the Criminal Investigations Division. “Where there’s an allegation, we want to maintain and process the evidence and to complete the follow up we need to do.”

The SMPD came under fire from advocates of sexual assault victims last year when a report by Human Rights Watch entitled “Testing Justice: The Rape Kit Backlog in Los Angeles City and County,” found that there were more than 12,000 rape kits yet to be tested in the county, with 485 in the custody of the SMPD.

Officers disputed that number, saying there were 467 kits, with 340 having been processed as of Feb. 5.

Advocates said there was no excuse for any backlog given the relatively low number of sexual assaults in Santa Monica (there were 21 reported rapes in 2008, 30 the year prior, according to figures released by the SMPD), the amount of resources at the department’s disposal and the close proximity to one of the premier rape treatment centers in the nation at Santa Monica-UCLA Medical Center. Some said they were shocked to learn the SMPD had so many kits in storage.

“No one would have suspected Santa Monica to have such a backlog because of the close relationship they have with the rape treatment center,” said Sarah Tofte, a researcher with Human Rights Watch and author of the report. “Santa Monica wasn’t on our radar but we wanted to do a comprehensive report so we asked for their records and I was really surprised at what we found.”

In prior years, detectives with the SMPD and other departments had discretion over whether or not to send DNA evidence to the Sheriff’s Department for processing. Some rape kits were not processed because the victim did not want to prosecute or the District Attorney’s Office would not file a case. Some of the kits were also collected before advancements in DNA technology, Beautz said, which could account for why they were never processed.

Detectives were aware that the Sheriff’s Department, which processes kits for free for Santa Monica and roughly 80 other contract cities, was overloaded, trying to process its own backlog, and therefore did not want to add to their backlog by sending kits that the detectives felt were not of the highest priority.

That was in the past. Beautz said the SMPD now sends roughly six or seven kits a month for processing to eradicate the backlog. If evidence is collected that needs to be processed immediately, SMPD detectives can send the evidence to the Orange County Sheriff’s Department, a service the SMPD pays for by the hour.

“It’s not that the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department doesn’t do a great job,” Beautz said. “They do a spectacular job, but they can’t always turn over evidence in the time we want it so we looked at other options, private companies, other agencies and we found that Orange County has a quick turnaround.”

It takes roughly four to six weeks for the kits to be processed and can take longer before results are entered into a DNA database so detectives can search for a possible suspect, said Det. Karen Thompson with the cold case unit who handles sexual assaults.

Many kits submitted do not contain enough DNA markers to be uploaded into the database, known as CODIS, or Combined DNA Index System. Some kits may have deteriorated after having sat in storage for years. There must be 13 predetermined DNA markers found, Thompson said.

Of the 347 kits submitted by the SMPD and processed, there were 26 cases entered into CODIS, Thompson said. Of those, 10 have been uploaded but the suspect has not been identified. Thirteen additional profiles were uploaded and a match was made to a person, providing a lead. Three cases were resolved when the evidence was immediately examined and DNA samples from a named suspect were compared to DNA recovered from the victim.

Thompson said four arrests have been made, but prosecutors declined to file charges in two of the cases. One case has been filed while another was resolved with the suspect being convicted on all counts and sentenced to 149 years to life in prison. That suspect had been connected to a series of rapes in Los Angeles, Thompson said.

Sometimes when there is a match, the victims decline to participate in the investigation, Thompson said. Victims may not want to reopen old wounds or be forced to have their lives examined on the witness stand.

“There are many rape victims who do not report these crimes because they fear retaliation, they fear a loss of privacy or being blamed or disbelieved, and a lot have concerns about how they will be treated in the criminal justice system,” said Gail Abarbanel, director of the Rape Treatment Center at the Santa Monica-UCLA Medical Center.

Beautz said the SMPD realized there was a backlog and wanted to address it before the Human Rights Watch report was released and formed the new cold case unit to work specifically on the backlog.

That meant processing every kit, even if the case was outside the statute of limitations. Beautz said it is important to process all kits, even if no charges will be filed, because the evidence can be used in a future case to show prior conduct on behalf of the suspect.

“We feel that having a suspect profile on every one of the rape kits may ultimately help us solve a sexual assault somewhere down the line,” Beautz said.

While advocates said they would have hoped the backlog would have been eradicated by now, they were pleased to learn that the SMPD has changed its policy regarding processing. That said, they are still putting pressure on law enforcement agencies to not only process the kits faster by hiring more technicians, but also uploading the DNA evidence into CODIS so that detectives have more to work with.

“Every kit that’s not opened or tested or entered into the database represents a rapist still on the streets, ready to commit more crimes, and we’ve seen that happen,” Abarbanel said. “It’s one thing to process the kits, but it’s what you do with that information that really matters.”

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