City’s Reduces its “Rape Kit” Backlog

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Securing answers from San Francisco law enforcement agencies – which are engaged in internecine bickering over a host of issues, including allegations of racial profiling by police officers – about how well they respond to incidences of rape has proven as difficult as it was to determine their success in solving the City’s murder cases. (See “Better that 50/50 Chance of Getting Away with Murder in San Francisco,” October 2015). 

“We cannot determine how often a rape occurs in San Francisco because we would not be aware of it unless the victim comes forward and notifies us,” said a San Francisco Police Department spokesperson, unhelpfully. “Your best bet would be to contact the District Attorney’s office to see their prosecution rate of rape cases. Cases can be dropped for a multitude of reasons, including the victim no longer wanting prosecution.”

The DA’s spokesperson countered with, “In terms of rate of arrest that is a question for SFPD.  You can check out COMPSTAT for number of reported incidents.”  According to the Computer Statistics database, in 2015, there were 344 reported rape cases in the City.  The DA went on to state, “If your question instead is when SFPD solves a case and presents it to us for prosecution, how often do we charge it, that’s a very different inquiry. In 2015 our office had sufficient evidence to take action in 72 percent of the cases presented to our Child Abuse & Sexual Assault Unit.”  Left unanswered was the question the View had asked:  when a rape complaint is lodged in the City, how often is it resolved?

In response to political pressure, SFPD does appear to have made progress processing rape kits.  A rape kit is a container that has a checklist, materials, and instructions, along with envelopes and containers to package DNA specimens obtained during a sexual assault forensic exam. It may include bags and paper sheets for evidence collection, envelopes, materials for blood samples, and swabs. 

In 2010, the City enacted an ordinance requiring all rape kits be tested within 14 days of receipt. In 2013, ABC 7 news reporters discovered that the San Francisco Police Department hadn’t gone back and processed kits collected before the ordinance took effect.  In response to public outcry, the SFPD conducted an audit in 2014 which identified 753 pre-2010 untested kits that fell within the statute of limitations of 10 years.

“The Department had previously used the number 753 [of untested kits], but later determined that of the 753, 76 of those kits had previously had some level of DNA testing done,” Officer Grace Gatpandan said, which lowered the number of untested kits to 677.

To test the DNA in the rape kits, SFPD contracted with a private lab, Virginia-based Bode Cellmark Forensics. Ninety-seven percent of the 677 kits contained sufficient evidence to merit uploading the resulting data into the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s combined DNA index system (CODIS).  CODIS relies on two indices to generate investigative leads for crimes that contain biological evidence. The forensic index consists of DNA profiles created from biological evidence left at crime scenes; the offender index contains DNA profiles of individuals convicted of violent crimes. CODIS compares a target DNA record of an identified suspect against the DNA records contained in the database.

The match of the forensic DNA record against the DNA files in the database may be used to establish probable cause to obtain an evidentiary DNA sample from a suspect, with the resulting evidence available to be presented in court, according to the FBI’s website. 

Of San Francisco’s 677 kits, in 231 DNA was obtained from biological material at the crime scene that could be attributable to a presumed perpetrator; 119 resulted in “hits” or matches in DNA samples. “There are 55 additional kits in various states of review for evaluation and possible uploading to CODIS,” Gatpandan said.

The City has another 513 kits that relate to crimes that are beyond the statute of limitations. In 2014, SFPD said it wouldn’t test those kits, but has since reversed their position. “Of those items submitted, 43 resulted in some type of response from lab testing,” Gatpandan said. “There are 405 in process at the contract laboratory. Sixty-five are pending. To date, there are no CODIS entries from these items.”

SFPD declined to provide further information. “There is a CODIS document containing identifying information of suspects; however, that document is exempt from disclosure as it contains information that, if released, would compromise ongoing investigations and the persons listed may be suspects only and that information is not subject to disclosure,” Gatpandan said.

Policymakers continue to pay attention to rape kit backlogs. In late-February, Assembly member David Chiu (D-San Francisco) and Attorney General Kamala D. Harris introduced a bill that would provide greater transparency for rape survivors, policymakers and the criminal justice system around sexual assault cases. Assembly Bill 1848, co-authored by Assembly member Autumn R. Burke (D-Inglewood) and Assembly member Bill Quirk (D-Hayward), would direct local law enforcement agencies to track the progression of rape kits and report their data – such as the number of kits they receive – to the U.S. Department of Justice.

In California, no comprehensive data is available about the number of sexual assault evidence kits that local law enforcement agencies collect annually, or how many of those kits are analyzed. Further, no information is available that details why some sexual assault evidence kits aren’t analyzed.

“Survivors of sexual assault who are submitting sexual assault evidence kits aren’t getting the answers they need and deserve,” Chiu said in a press release. “To get at the crux of the backlog problem, we need to know how many kits are collected each year, and if they’re not analyzed, we need to know why. This data will help shed a light on what areas of law enforcement need to change and whether or not they need more resources to get the job done.”

Last month, the San Francisco Police Commission directed SFPD to submit public reports twice a year documenting the department’s collection and analysis of rape kits.