PUBLIC SAFETY FACILITY — There are no longer unprocessed rape kits in the possession of the Santa Monica Police Department after detectives sent 470 to the crime lab over the last 13 months for processing to see if any critical DNA evidence can be collected, law enforcement officials said this week.

Capt. Wendell Shirley told the Daily Press Thursday that the last rape kit in storage was sent to the Los Angeles County crime lab on Monday, clearing the Santa Monica Police Department’s backlog.

The SMPD and other law enforcement agencies came under fire in 2009 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 more than 450 in the custody of the SMPD.

Police Chief Tim Jackman changed the department’s policy regarding the kits in response to the report. Under the new policy, all rape kits — the physical evidence collected after a sexual assault — are sent to the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department for processing within 72 hours, whereas before it was left up to the detectives which kits would be sent or placed in storage.

Detectives are also required to periodically check with the crime lab on the status of kits submitted to ensure they are processed as quickly as possible, Shirley said.

“We are pleased to say that we zeroed in, made sure all kits were sent out and now we are clear of any backlog,” Shirley said.

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 and 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.

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, which could account for why they were never processed, police said.

Detectives were aware that the Sheriff’s Department, which processes kits for free for Santa Monica and roughly 150 other contract cities and agencies, 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.

The county crime lab has made significant progress in processing its own backlog and is confident it can now take on DNA evidence collected at the scene of property crimes in addition to evidence collected following a sexual assault, said Dean Gialamas, director of the Sheriff’s Department-Scientific Services Bureau.

With an influx of funding, new technology and increased efficiency, the crime lab as of April 1 had just 82 kits left to be processed out of 4,763 that needed testing. The final batch of kits was sent this month. The total cost so far to process the backlog is roughly $3.9 million.

“The finish line is right in front of us,” said Gialamas, who hopes to be able to begin DNA testing for property crimes in 18 months.

As director of the Orange County crime lab, Gialamas said solving property crimes, or what he referred to as “gateway crimes,” often led to the identification of suspects in major crimes, the connection made through DNA evidence.

“Our hope is to get to that point in L.A. County,” he said. “The theory is when you are catching a career criminal much earlier … you are potentially preventing serious crimes from being committed in the future and this allows us to have a positive impact on public safety.”

Shortening the amount of time it takes to process a kit and upload a hit onto a national database called CODIS, or Combined DNA Index System, is critical. With new procedures in place and more staff on hand, the county crime lab has been able to do that. Gialamas said the time to process a kit has been trimmed considerably, with kits being returned in 30 to 60 days instead of several months.

Santa Monica detectives have noticed a difference.

“We’ve been seeing returns as early as 30 days,” said Lt. Mike Beautz, executive officer of the Criminal Investigations Division. “Their capacity now is considerably greater than it was even a year ago.”

This helps cut costs, as detectives have reduced the number of kits they send to Orange County for processing. While the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department processes kits for free for law enforcement agencies operating within the county, Orange County’s crime lab charges those agencies a fee. Gialamas said the county crime lab pays on average $850 for an independent laboratory for processing.

But just because a kit is submitted doesn’t mean a match will be made on CODIS. In February of 2010, the SMPD said of the 347 kits submitted and processed, there were 26 cases entered into CODIS. Of those, 10 had been uploaded but the suspect had 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, police said at the time.

One case was resolved with the suspect being connected to a series of rapes in Los Angeles, detective said. That suspect was sentenced to 149 years to life in prison.

Gialamas said there have been 483 CODIS matches as of April 1 involving cases handled by the Sheriff’s Department, with 59 resulting in criminal filings. Two of the cases were related to the backlog elimination project.

Gail Abarbanel, director of the Rape Treatment Center at Santa Monica-UCLA Medical Center said news that the SMPD has submitted all of its kits is encouraging, however, what is critical is getting those kits that result in DNA matches back into the hands of detectives as soon as possible so that they can take action.

“All of this progress is great, but we need to get to a place where kits are done in a timely way and we’ll save a lot of people from being hurt,” she said.

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