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Despite deadline in new law, few Texas police agencies reported count of untested rape kits

Image has not been found. URL: http://images.americanindependent.com/TexasRapeKit_360.jpgComponents of a Texas sexual assault evidence kit (photo courtesy taasa.org)

Two weeks after a deadline for local police departments to count their untested rape kits and report back to the state, fewer than five percent of the agencies in the state delivered their totals to the Texas Department of Public Safety, as required by a new state law.

The 81 agencies that reported a count of their backlogs combined for a total of 5,496 untested rape kits, sets of swabs, fibers and other samples that can be tested later for DNA evidence.

That’s about as many as were uncovered in San Antonio alone by a 2009 investigation by CBS News. A recent count by the Houston Police Department — which has yet to report its total to the DPS — put their backlog at around 7,000 kits.

DPS spokesman Tom Vinger told the Texas Independent that the latest count represents the number of untested kits related to each agency’s “active” sexual assault cases. While DPS is still working to collect totals, it’s unsure how many local agencies are out there in Texas that haven’t reported.

According to the latest monthly count by the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement Officer Standards and Education, Texas has 2,647 separate law enforcement agencies — and while most of those aren’t big city police departments, the 81 agencies that have reported to DPS account for just a fraction of the untested kits in the state.

The reporting deadline was mandated by state Sen. Wendy Davis’ Senate Bill 1636, which passed earlier this year. As introduced, the bill would have introduced a bold but costly mandate to reduce the backlog of old rape kits waiting to be tested, but those costly requirements were stripped before the bill was passed.

Instead, the bill that made it to Gov. Rick Perry’s desk was a lighter version, without such a hefty price tag. Local law enforcement would have until October 15 to report back to DPS with how many untested kits remained in their backlog, and until April 1 to send all the kits related to open cases to the DPS or another lab. Based on the law, though, it’s not clear that there are any consequences for agencies that don’t report.

A National Institute of Justice report in May said that while nobody knows just how many untested evidence kits are out there, it’s a large percentage of the “18 percent of unsolved alleged sexual assaults that occurred from 2002 to 2007 contained forensic evidence that was still in police custody.” Nationwide, there may be 180,000 untested rape kits sitting in evidence rooms, according to another study released earlier this year.

“Testing all the kits would be a mighty big project even if we had all the money in the world,” Texas Association Against Sexual Assault deputy director Torie Camp told the Independent, but SB 1636 contains important first steps — including coming up with an accurate statewide count. “It’s laying the groundwork for testing all the kits,” she said.

The total DPS has collected so far is very incomplete, Camp said, but it suggests a “significant number” if multiplied across all the local agencies in the state.

A state analysis during the legislative session estimated there are 22,000 untested kits in Houston, Dallas and San Antonio alone, Camp pointed out, and she said it’s notable that San Antonio’s total, around 2,000, was so much lower than had been recently reported, suggesting a different definition had been used in each round of counting.

San Antonio Police Department spokesman Matthew Porter said he’d check to confirm the number reported by DPS, but that the department had worked to clear out its evidence backlog since the CBS story two years ago. While new evidence is submitted all the time, he said he believes “all the kits in that story” have since been tested.

Camp also said it’s notable that five of the six regional Texas Department of Criminal Justice inspectors reported their counts, totaling 16 untested evidence kits from sexual assaults in prison.

“I thought it was notable on this report that TDCJ was reporting in, which I think is fantastic,” Camp said. “We don’t really talk about prison rape a whole lot, but that’s it right there — these 10 rapes in prisons in the Houston region happened and have been untested.”

Camp acknowledged that the new deadline didn’t leave large police departments much time to come up with a count. She’s hopeful, though, that by the law’s next deadline in April, more agencies will get their untested evidence accounted for and submitted to a lab.

“I’d like to figure out if we can get more reporting, if DPS will press on for more reporting from all of the law enforcement entities that did not report,” Camp said. “I think that the authors of the legislation can recognize that this deadline came quickly on the heels of the legislative session.”

While Houston PD is likely the largest agency yet to report, it’s also the department where the massive backlog is being most actively addressed. In April, it was one of two recipients of a U.S. Department of Justice grant to study how its backlog got so far out of hand. As the Texas Independent reported in May, researchers at Sam Houston State University and the University of Texas at Austin are studying Houston’s lab.

HPD spokesman John Cannon told the Independent that while they have yet to report a total to DPS, they’re working on complying with the new law — not just by reporting the size of their backlog, but by submitting new kits to be tested within 30 days. He said they expect to finish their count and reply to DPS by mid-December.

“The police department has not submitted such a firm number, but at the same time is one of the few agencies that’s right in the midst of an audit,” Cannon said. “It would be safe to say that we’ve made it a priority here, there’s no doubt about that.”

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