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L.A.'s rape kit backlog: A test of justice

Even though money is tight, the Sheriff's Department must keep its promise to victims and the public that it will process the crucial evidence now sitting on shelves.

July 17, 2009

For almost a year, law enforcement agencies across Los Angeles County have struggled to address revelations that they have fallen woefully behind on testing rape kits, collections of evidence taken from the victims of rape. When Human Rights Watch first disclosed the backlogs at the Los Angeles Police Department and the Sheriff's Department, officials promised quick action, then faltered as budgets tightened.

The Police Department eventually found the resources and commitment to move ahead. According to Human Rights Watch, the City Council granted it the funds needed to continue testing at a steady rate. Although the LAPD lab still has more than 4,000 kits in storage, it is now testing about 450 a month. More important, it immediately tests all "stranger rape" kits, or cases without a suspect. The Sheriff's Department, by contrast, has fallen further behind, its efforts complicated by the recurring conflict over the proper level of county funding for the department. Its backlog is now more than 3,600, with 700 more sent to other labs but not yet tested.

Rape kits are just one of many tools law enforcement officials use to make arrests in sexual assault cases. Although most useful in stranger rape cases, which constitute about 20% of the sexual assaults reported to the LAPD, these kits hold a bounty of evidence that can also back up or refute claims of consent in instances in which the assailant is known by the victim. According to Human Rights Watch, when New York City tested its entire backlog of 17,000 kits and loaded the information into the national DNA databank, the arrest rate for rape cases soared to more than 70%. The arrest rate in L.A. County hovers around 25%. Beyond the unsolved crimes, the failure to process rape kits raises serious questions about gender politics and victims' rights. It is unacceptable to put victims through this exercise and then simply shelve the results.

This month, the Sheriff's Department announced that the Cal State Los Angeles crime lab, which houses facilities for the police and sheriff's departments, would receive an expected $1-million federal grant. The money will help -- it will pay for the outsourcing of 250 kits to independent labs and provide for forensic training -- but it won't help a lot.

This is hardly the time to ask for more public money, but the Sheriff's Department has publicly committed to clearing its rape kit backlog, and it must fulfill that promise. The department should start by testing the estimated 500 kits from cases in which the assailant is unknown, then move swiftly to the rest. If that means cutting back on some other service -- grounding a traffic helicopter, curbing a foot patrol -- so be it. The department and the county must take the responsibility to provide funding for rape kit testing in future budgets.

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