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Sarah Tofte

Sarah Tofte

Posted: January 21, 2010 10:49 AM

Los Angeles was poised to become a national model for delivering justice to rape victims last year. The City approved a plan and funding to test the backlog of more than 7,000 sets of untested physical evidence from rape cases for DNA matches.

Then came last week's announcement that the city would not be hiring the additional crime lab personnel necessary to clear this backlog and to test every future booked set of evidence, known as a rape kit. Los Angeles may now become another sad example of how difficult it is to get politicians to live up to their promises.

Testing a rape kit can identify an unknown rapist, confirm the presence of a known suspect, corroborate the victim's version of events, or exonerate an innocent defendant. Arrest, prosecution, and conviction rates for rape cases have risen considerably in jurisdictions that have made a commitment to test every kit. But in Los Angeles, as Human Rights Watch documented in a 2009 report, the arrest rate for rape is at a historic low - only about one in five rape victims is likely to see a suspect arrested.

Last spring, after years of advocacy by victims' rights groups, the Los Angeles Police Department requested, the City Council passed, and the Mayor approved $1.4 million to erase the longstanding rape kit backlog by hiring 26 staff members for the DNA crime laboratory and outsource rape kits to private labs for testing. It was a soaring victory and was hailed as a turning point. But in a stunning reversal, city officials announced last week that they had decided behind closed doors that they would not follow through on their promise to hire new crime lab staff.

How did this happen? Well, despite continued, clear calls for transparency and oversight of the spending of the funding by advocates, the City Council has not held a full hearing on this issue since the funding was approved last spring. No written accounting of progress or spending has been requested of the LAPD by the City Council. The decision to renege on the funding approval for the crime lab personnel was made by a little known Managed Hiring Committee in a closed door meeting by unelected City representatives who clearly had little information and less understanding of the rape kit backlog and the plan to eliminate it.

The fiscal crisis is of course part of the problem. But officials knew last year, when they agreed finally to make a commitment to justice for rape victims, that these are lean times. During last year's budget hearings, the City touted the fact that this money was the only increased funding approved by the City last year. We would like to think that the decision to add funding for rape kit testing in the midst of a fiscal emergency reflected their recognition that officials must act when basic governmental duties are not being fulfilled, and testing rape kits is one of those duties. Now one wonders whether they simply hoped no one would notice that the funding was cut.

In response to news of the canceled positions, City Council President Eric Garcetti introduced a motion last week to redirect some of the funds earmarked for those positions to outsourcing rape kits to private crime labs for testing. The LAPD has made substantial progress by using outside labs to test the majority of its backlogged rape kits, but outsourcing alone will not solve the problem. By federal law, public crime lab personnel must review the test results of privately outsourced kits before the test results can be entered into the public DNA database. Even now, outsourced rape kits wait an average of 72 days after testing before they are reviewed by crime lab personnel. Unfortunately, Garcetti's motion seems to be the City's last best option to use this year's budgetary funds for rape kit testing.

Without additional crime lab personnel, this secondary backlog of kits for which testing is not complete will only grow. Until testing is complete, and the results are added to the public DNA database, and DNA matches are investigated, justice will continue to elude rape victims. The managed hiring panel could still vote to approve at least some of the 26 crime lab positions authorized by the Los Angeles City Council last year. They must approve as many positions as possible and they must do so quickly so that the LAPD can begin building their lab's capacity immediately.

The loss of the crime lab positions is a huge blow to policymakers, advocates, rape victims, and law enforcement across the country who hoped that Los Angeles would show other jurisdictions tackling their rape kit backlogs the route to success. Instead, Los Angeles is showing them the route to failure.


Sarah Tofte is a researcher in the U.S. program of Human Rights Watch.