SAN DIEGO (CN) — The San Diego police chief told the City Council on Tuesday that her department is wading through a backlog of 558 untested rape kits but will not test every kit in its crime lab, eschewing national standards.
A 2014 state audit on sexual assault evidence kits analyzed DNA evidence that was collected but not analyzed from rape, domestic violence and child abuse victims in San Diego, Sacramento and Oakland.
The audit found that fewer than half of the rape kits were tested and analyzed, but that the benefits of testing all sexual assault kits were unknown. After the audit, however, Sacramento and Oakland adopted a policy of testing all rape kits; San Diego has not.
Victims’ advocates with the California Coalition on Sexual Assault and the Joyful Heart Foundation say all kits should be analyzed, and that uploading DNA evidence to databases could help solve cold cases.
A Department of Justice report last year also recommended all rape kits should be submitted to crime labs for DNA analysis.
San Diego Police Department Crime Lab manager Jennifer Shen said Tuesday that though there are rules for when DNA evidence can be entered into a database, “We don’t really have rules for testing a kit.”
Shen said investigators must show a crime occurred to enter evidence in a database. Rape kits in cases where claims were unsubstantiated or unfounded based on police investigations are not tested.
“We have to show that profile likely belongs to a bad guy and not someone else,” Shen said.
Singling out DNA evidence from consensual partners is important so their DNA does not end up in a national crime database, Shen said.
While San Diego Police have faced criticism for not testing all rape kits — including recent dissenting opinions on the department’s policy from San Diego City Attorney Mara Elliott and District Attorney Summer Stephan — Shen said the department considers itself a leader for testing every kit involving a stranger.
Shen questioned the practicality of the national push to test all rape kits. She said the Los Angeles Police Department spent millions of dollars testing its backlog of rape kits and netted only a handful of prosecutions.
Since the state audit, Shen said, her department has improved its recordkeeping on rape kits, especially when it comes to documenting why investigators chose not to test a kit. She said the department is turning its focus to more than 550 kits that were not tested because a victim decided not to participate in the case.
Her department plans to convene a working group with victims’ advocates and representatives from the District Attorney’s Office, City Attorney’s Office and police department, Shen said. The working group is expected to convene in July.
The 558 cases are to be evaluated by late this year, and the rape kits the working group determines should be tested will be analyzed starting in January 2019.
Two public speakers and several City Council members raised concerns about cases where victims recanted the assault they reported to San Diego police. Council members said some victims may have been pressured into recanting, or believed their case would not be taken seriously.
Councilman David Alvarez said that “at a minimum” testing every rape kit is “the right thing to do.”
“I have been vocal in my concerns for several years regarding the lack of testing of these kits and am pleased that the Council allocated resources to reduce the current backlog. There should be no excuses,” Alvarez said in an email. “If a victim goes through the invasive process of being tested, the least we can do is review evidence collected. Other cities have this commitment to justice and we should as well.”
The City Council asked Shen to provide updates on the working group’s findings later this year.