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L.A.'s rape kit betrayal

October 22, 2008|TIM RUTTEN

We now know that the Los Angeles Police Department's crime lab is a virtually perfect engine of injustice.

As The Times reported last week, an internal report on the fingerprint unit turned up at least two instances in which shoddy work led to the prosecution of innocent people. Then, on Monday, City Controller Laura Chick released an audit showing that the lab's understaffed and underfunded DNA unit has allowed at least 7,000 sexual assault test kits to go unopened. In at least 217 of those cases -- nobody is sure of the precise number -- the kits have been left to sit for so long that the 10-year statute of limitations has expired, so those assailants cannot be prosecuted.

So, to put the matter plainly: This city has a forensic science division whose incompetence ensnares the innocent, while its mismanagement allows the guilty to go free.

Given what we know about the conduct of sexual predators, it seems reasonable to assume that this situation lets criminals stay on the street to commit other assaults. Gail Abarbanel directs the Rape Treatment Center at Santa Monica UCLA Medical Center, which conducts the examinations that go into the assault kits. "Every unopened rape kit means there may be a dangerous offender loose on the street," she said Tuesday. "Three new victims came in here yesterday, and you have to wonder whether any of them would have been raped if all those kits had been opened."

So, having made a reasonable summary of the evidence and heard a reasonable appraisal of its significance, let's ask the reasonable question: Who's responsible?

The answer is that the mayor, police chief and City Council majority are equally complicit.

Let's start at the top. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa was silent last week on the fingerprint issue, and so far he has had nothing to say on the abominable backlog in the DNA unit. When Villaraigosa runs for reelection next year, he'll be sure to tout how he collaborated with Police Chief Bill Bratton to improve public safety. If Bratton had gone before the microphones Monday to announce that the LAPD had cleared every rape kit in its backlog, the mayor would have been beside him to share the applause. The 7,000 women and children -- half the victims of sexual assault are under 18 -- at least have the right to expect the mayor to show up when the news is not good.

Bratton, for his part, inherited a troubled and demoralized department when he came to Los Angeles six years ago. A great deal has changed since then, and today's LAPD is more responsive, responsible and effective. But even a $2-billion budget like the LAPD's requires a declaration of priorities, and it's obvious that clearing the rape kit backlog hasn't been the chief's.

It's true, as Bratton points out, that the LAPD repeatedly has requested more money for its crime lab. But the best available data suggest that there were about 2,600 untested rape kits in the LAPD's hands when he took over as chief. If there are 7,000 now, every year of Bratton's tenure more than 700 victims of sexual assault had crucial evidence of the crime against them go unexamined. That's a demerit on a generally admirable record that can't just be erased by creating a special task force -- which was Bratton's reaction Monday. The chief needs to declare a reasonable date to clear the backlog and apply some of his famous accountability to those charged with meeting it.

Finally, there's the council majority, whose performance on this issue has been feckless, as it has been on so many others. Jack Weiss and Wendy Greuel have waged a lonely battle for action on this scandalous foul-up with little support and less follow-through from their colleagues. It's up to Villaraigosa and Bratton to make crime lab staffing and technology as high a priority as increasing the number of cops, but the council needs to push them too -- and approve the funding requests.

These are not simply issues of justice but of basic decency. Our social contract contains an implicit pledge that we will do what we can to keep one another safe and, when that's impossible, to do what we must to make the injured whole. Civic Los Angeles -- that is, all of us acting together -- have failed to hold up our end of the bargain with the 7,000 women and children whose intimate evidence sits neglected in the LAPD's crime lab.

As Abarbanel said Tuesday: "When a rape is committed, the victim's body is the crime scene. They consent to its search in the same way that a person who has suffered a property crime consents to a search of their home, though it's themselves these victims are opening to inspection." To treat evidence gathered at that excruciating moment in this indifferent fashion, she said, "betrays the victim's faith in the criminal justice system."

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