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7,000 victims of neglect

October 21, 2008

Los Angeles is not dealing in good faith with more than 7,000 victims of rape and sexual assault who, in the hours after their ordeal, chose to allow their bodies to be examined, and DNA evidence collected, to give police and prosecutors what they need to identify the assailants and secure convictions. Those victims have every right to expect that the evidence will be quickly put to use. But as Controller Laura Chick noted in an audit released Monday, the backlog of "rape kits" sitting unexamined in frozen storage is growing. There are not enough Los Angeles Police Department criminologists to study them.

The city's inability or unwillingness to fund this necessary police work is a result of politics as well as resource limits. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, like his predecessors, has put a premium on increasing the number of officers on the street; when the department gets money, that's often where it goes. Police Chief William J. Bratton also has focused on numbers.

This page too has urged the city to enlarge the department. Los Angeles remains the nation's most underpoliced big city, and recent downward crime trends have come in spite of, and not because of, the unacceptably low officer-to-resident ratio. But there's little point in having more officers, or arrests, if the department neglects the bedrock investigative and lab work necessary to solve crimes.

Just as poor oversight in the LAPD's Latent Print Unit was found to have contributed to false fingerprint identifications of suspects, as reported Friday by Times staff writers Joel Rubin and Richard Winton, inattention to rape evidence may be undermining the whole point of a larger department.

It's absurd to say that the department can't beef up its investigatory and support infrastructure at the same time it's beefing up its force. Villaraigosa, who could emphasize this fact, instead made things worse with his unnecessary and misleading promise that "every dollar" of an increase in trash collection fees would go to hiring new officers. In fact, much of the trash fee money appropriately went to other LAPD needs, as Chick reported earlier this year, but taxpayer groups and other critics have ignored the big picture and focused on the mayor's unfortunate statement as evidence that funds are being misused.

They have it backward, as the rape kit audit shows. Hiring more officers remains a worthy goal, but it need not be done foolishly and with contempt for rape victims whose cases deserve attention. The City Council -- and the LAPD -- must make funding the necessary lab work a priority.

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