A state task force focused on untested rape kits is turning its attention to its first challenge: Finding money to test the estimated 6,000 kits sitting in police evidence rooms across the state.
But if the state finds the funding, it could still take years for those DNA test results to produce criminal charges, judging by the experience of other jurisdictions.
Rape kits, known formally as sexual assault evidence collection kits, contain swabs and other tools used to collect DNA samples and other evidence from rape victims. They are stocked by police departments and hospitals, and are intended for use immediately after a rape has occurred.
In Washington and nationwide, however, thousands of kits have been stored without ever being processed.
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Until recently that was also the case in Houston, Texas, where police received a federal grant in 2011 to identify rape kits that hadn’t been submitted for analysis.
A thorough inventory turned up nearly 6,700 kits in Houston police storage that had never been submitted for testing, said Mary Lentschke, assistant police chief with the Houston Police Department. The city’s crime lab also had a backlog of 1,400 kits that had been submitted but not tested, on top of an anticipated influx of 1,000 new kits each year, she said.
All of those kits were submitted to outside labs for testing in April 2013, and it took until February 2015 for the labs to finish analyzing all of them, Lentscke said.
Then, the Houston police faced another challenge: Investigating all the leads produced by testing the kits.
“Now the issue became, we’re gonna get all the kits tested, that’s great. Now what are we going to do with all the results? How are we going to handle 9,000 cases coming back to us in a year?” Lentschke said in a conference call with Washington’s rape kit task force members last week.
To review all the cases, Houston police had to bring some retired investigators back into the field, she told the Washington task force, which met for the first time Tuesday. Police investigations on some of those rape cases in Houston will continue “until sometime next year,” Lentschke said.
“We’re seeing a light at the end of the tunnel, if you will,” she said.
As of August, Houston’s work testing rape kits had resulted in 59 new charges against suspected rapists, Lentschke said, and turned up more than 1,000 matches in a national DNA database.
The city was able to complete its work on rape kits with the help of $2.2 million in federal funding, which was matched by $2.2 million from the Houston city government, Lentschke said.
State Rep. Tina Orwall, D-Des Moines, said Washington similarly needs to start by identifying sources of grant money that could help the state test unsubmitted rape kits.
“Our state hasn’t been able to tap into any of the federal resources yet,” Orwall said. “That is an important next step.”
As in Houston, however, Washington police agencies would most likely need to do some front-end work before they can start submitting rape kits for testing, she said.
While the State Patrol has estimated that there are about 6,000 rape kits sitting in evidence rooms throughout the state, that number is based on informal surveys and is not a complete count, Orwall said.
Police say that in the past many kits were not sent for testing if the victim knew his or her attacker, or if a suspect admitted to committing the crime. But the failure to submit those kits to a lab also prevented those suspects’ DNA from being entered in national DNA databases that could connect them to other cases.
Before securing a federal grant to test rape kits, Washington police agencies would most likely need to conduct a more exhaustive inventory of kits in storage, Orwall said.
Judging by the experience in Houston, that alone could take several months. Finding funding to test all those kits — which Lentschke said cost about $500 per kit in Houston — may take even longer.
In Cleveland, Ohio, police began counting all untested rape kits in 2009, and it took until 2013 for that work to result in an indictment, the Plain Dealer newspaper reported.
Still, two rape survivors who serve on the Washington sexual assault exam kit task force said they are hopeful that the group could make progress not just on testing rape kits, but also in improving how police officers are trained to respond to victims.
The task force was formed this year by legislation that Orwall sponsored and Gov. Jay Inslee signed into law in April.
Under the new law, police departments must submit a request to the Washington State Patrol Crime Laboratory for each new rape kit, should the victim consent to an investigation.
But the law doesn’t require testing of kits collected before July 2015, when the new rules went into effect.
That’s where the task force comes in, Orwall said.
The group, which includes lawmakers, victim advocates, prosecutors and law enforcement officials, will research funding options and techniques to reduce the number of untested kits throughout the state and make its first report to the Legislature by Dec. 1.
Mitch Barker, executive director of the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs, said that while waiting several years for test results and investigations into rapes may sound like a long time, it is important that officials start the process.
He said that while Houston police spent two years testing their rape kits, Washington law enforcement officials spent more years talking about the problem before the formation of the task force.
“Two years is a long time, but it’s not as long as four years of doing nothing,” Barker said.