Rape kit backlog must be cleared

From the Editorial Board

Tacoma Police Det. Bradley Graham of the department's Special Assaults Unit stands among shelves of "rape kits," some of which have never been tested for lack of resources. August 24, 2017.
Tacoma Police Det. Bradley Graham of the department's Special Assaults Unit stands among shelves of "rape kits," some of which have never been tested for lack of resources. August 24, 2017. phaley@thenewstribune.com

If you’re looking for visible signs of a dysfunctional criminal justice system, you’ll find them in law enforcement storage facilities across the state. Picture row after row of unprocessed evidence stored in boxes and stacked to the ceiling.

In 2015, the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs reported over 6,000 rape kits collected by Washington law enforcement agencies in the course of sexual assault investigations had gone unprocessed.

Thanks to a series of laws passed by the Legislature in 2015, a dent’s been made in clearing out this backlog.

Lawmakers appropriated $2.47 million in the 2016-2017 budget to test old rape kits. As a result, over 1,100 of the state’s backlogged kits have been submitted for testing, and 325 have been completed and returned to police and prosecutors.

But thousands of untested rape kits remain. According to the state’s Sexual Assault Forensic Examination task force, an additional $1.5 million is still needed to end the backlog.

Each rape kit contains biological evidence such as saliva, blood, semen, dental impressions, urine and skin cells. Each represents a person who agreed to an invasive medical procedure, one that could have taken up to six hours to complete.

Prior to the state’s 2015 laws, police and sheriff departments were the gatekeepers of these kits. They decided which ones got shelved and which ones were sent to a state crime lab.

Qualified scientists who could analyze the DNA at the State Patrol crime laboratories were in short supply. Funding was also an issue. Processing a kit costs between $600 and $3,000. Law enforcement agencies were forced to prioritize.

Deciding which crimes were worthy of investigation should not have been left to law enforcement alone. Even in a case that doesn’t seem to have much else to go on, with DNA evidence, you might get a hit with an assault case, and be able to get another conviction. You might detect a pattern where none had been visible before. Normal police practice should include testing all rape kits. Wisely, the 2015 Legislature agreed.

Today, within 30 days of a reported sexual assault, law enforcement agencies must submit a request to the Washington State Patrol crime laboratory for testing of all evidence.

Detective Bradley Graham of the Tacoma Police Department’s Special Assault Unit is concerned the 2015 laws removed law enforcement’s discretion. He believes law enforcement officers are still the best qualified to judge whether a rape kit needs to be sent to crime labs.

He told The News Tribune contributing writer Holly Newman Dzyban, “You’re taking away from me the ability to say this really isn’t what it looks like.”

But we don’t see any downside to a best-practice task force that follows the state’s SAFE guidelines. It restores the confidence victims require to step forward and press charges.

The decision to report any crime, especially rape, is based on the victim’s assessment of the dependability of the criminal justice system. If victims believe reporting a rape will only lead to further personal exposure with little chance of prosecution, they are less likely to report.

We have the technology to identify criminals; we have the technology that enables federal, state and local forensic laboratories to exchange and compare DNA profiles.

When state crime labs submit DNA evidence to the Combined DNA Index System “CODIS ,” they give law enforcement and prosecutors valuable evidence to identify serial rapists, solve cold cases and lock up sexual predators.

Processing evidence to solve the most invasive of violent of crimes must take priority. Every rape kit sitting on a shelf untested is an injustice. It means instead of going to prison, a potential rapist is free to find more victims.