Over the past few years, police departments across the country have developed a common problem that is becoming increasingly visible: A backlog of DNA evidence—and specifically sexual assault forensic evidence aka “rape kits”—that has yet to be tested. Still, when the Austin Police Department closed its DNA lab completely in May and the city approved spending $1.18 million (money that originally came from a federal grant) to send 2,000 of its 2,700 untested kits to a Utah lab to be processed, most people who were paying attention had the same questions: How did this happen? And why had the lab seemingly been chronically underfunded, to the point where it would never catch up?
That, according to Anna Rodriguez DeFrates, is the “million-dollar” question. DeFrates, appointed by Council Member Sabino “Pio” Renteria to the Austin Commission for Women, has been working along with her fellow commissioners to address that question—and correct the consequences.
APD’s DNA Lab Failures
Before the lab closed, she said in a telephone interview, it had four analysts who could process roughly 40 total cases of evidence per month. APD told the commission that it receives an average of 94 cases (for all crimes—roughly 25 of them sexual assault) of evidence per month, causing about 50 cases of evidence to be put into a “backlog” every month. “It’s safe to say that the lab was never prioritized in the department,” said DeFrates.
DeFrates noted that, to its credit, the lab had sought and received a federal audit to bring itself in line with current best practices, something Commander Nick Wright, who oversees APD’s Property/Forensics/Evidence department, interviewed via email, confirms. The DNA lab—which is used for all charged crimes with evidence, not just sexual assaults—closed in June 2016 “due to findings that our analysis of DNA was not following best practices,” his email reads. Attempting to move to new, federally mandated guidelines at the same time, he added, made it logical to close the lab. Trying to process evidence at the same time would have “increased our completion time significantly as well as increased the possibility for errors in analysis,” he added.
Wright explained that the backlog originated because it receives an average of 94 DNA cases per month, but had the staff to test only about 60. The lab had to essentially triage cases, prioritizing something like a suspected “serial rapist” and giving lower priority to cases in which “DNA is not needed for prosecution, such as those cases where the suspect is known or where the victim refuses to cooperate,” his email read.
He added that the current federal grant funding (called a DANY grant because it came out of a case involving the District Attorney of New York) “states that all rape cases [kits], not just those necessary for prosecution, will be tested. What this means is those cases that were originally not going to be tested—i.e., the known-suspect cases–are now mandated to be tested. In order to assist labs nationwide with testing these cases, federal money was allotted.”
The Texas Department of Public Safety also received money under the grant, and both APD Chief Art Acevedo, at a press conference, and Wright indicated that it can help with APD DNA evidence while the Austin lab is regrouping.
“It’s embarrassing … and it doesn’t make any sense.”
The grant money helps, but, as DeFrates point out, it doesn’t address the chronic problems of under-funding and under-staffing that make endless backlog inevitable. “It’s so glaringly obvious that it’s a huge problem,” she said, “and I don’t understand how it got to be such a problem. Why did the lab get to a point that it needed to be shut down to begin with? Why have the corrective measures been so conservative? Why are we not addressing appropriate resources to ensure that the 10th largest city in the United States has an adequately funded DNA lab? It’s embarrassing, it’s weird, and it doesn’t make any sense.”
As further evidence, she points to the preliminary budgeting process: “The reason I know it was not a priority was that in [the police department’s] original request, they asked for two additional staff people [even after an audit that recommended more].” In budgeting process between the city manager and the department, she noted, even those two were “zeroed out.”
Council Member Greg Casar stepped up shortly thereafter, she said. Casar and his staff worked directly with the department to “determine what it would take to make a meaningful dent in the backlog, how many staff it would take and what that would look like.” That process, she said, is what led to two amendments Casar is currently proposing to the city budget:
- PS1.07, which would provide $500,000 for the outsourcing of 500 sexual assault kits
- PS1.04, which would provide $1.4 million for seven analysts and one supervisor for the DNA lab.
What you can do to help
Since the city is currently in the budgeting process, those items will likely be part of this week’s City Council work sessions, and there will be time allotted during the public hearing section of this week’s regular council meeting on Thursday, Sept. 1, starting at 4pm, for the public’s opinion to be heard. Both DeFrates and the SAFE alliance (Stop Abuse for Everyone, of which SafePlace is a part) are urging people to mobilize around asking other council members to support Casar’s amendments, starting immediately, in the following ways:
Sign up now to speak at the City Council meeting on Thursday. Sign up can be completed by phone (512-974-2210), in person at the Office of the City Clerk, Suite 1120, City Hall, 301 W. 2nd Street, or by email. Then attend the September 1 City Council meeting at Austin City Hall. If you don’t want to speak, sign in, note your support for Casar’s amendments, and donate your allotted time to another speaker from the SAFE Alliance — you do need to stay until you are called in order for that speaker to get your allotted time.
Contact council members—particularly the one who represents your district—by end of day August 31, and ask them to support Casar’s budget amendment proposals. SAFE has sample letters/emails, scripts for speaking in person or on the phone, and a way to look up and how to contact your council member here.
In the meantime, it’s important to remember that a well-functioning DNA lab is vital to our civic health. “From our perspective,” explains DeFrates, “it’s to provide survivors of sexual assault justice, but from a defense attorney’s perspective it could be that their client could be exonerated. We all win when evidence is sound and reliable.”
And it’s just the right thing to do, she adds: “We ask a lot of survivors: talk to this reporter, testify at this hearing, share your story, end the stigma, etc. It’s time for us as a community to fulfill our end of the bargain as well.”