Thousands of untested rape kits are languishing in police department property rooms across the United States, with San Francisco this week being outed as a particular culprit.
The San Francisco Board of Supervisors introduced an ordinance in 2010 that requires all kits to be tested. ABC7's I-Team revealed that the San Francisco Police Department has 196 untouched rape kits on the shelves from 2009 and 2010, pre-dating the ordinance.
Following the report, the SFPD stated that it would review all 196 cases and undertake an audit of the property room to find any other untested kits. San Francisco Police Captain Dan Perea downplayed the 2009-2010 backlog and pointed to the post-ordinance policy. "Every kit that we get at the crime lab is tested," he told ABC7.
Rape kits, also known as sexual assault kits, are a key part of collecting evidence from a victim following an alleged sexual crime. Whilst the contents can vary, they usually contain important tools such as swabs, slides and combs for examiners or nurses to collect evidence such as semen, blood and hair. This helps link victims and possible perpetrators to the crime.
San Francisco's numbers are almost a drop in the ocean — last year, the Washington Post estimated that there are 400,000 untested rape kits in storage across America.
This is despite a clear connection between testing and solving cases. In Detroit, Prosecutor Kym Worthy was embarrassed by the discovery of 11,000 rape kits in police storage. Whilst the testing is still ongoing, 21 serial rapists have been matched to DNA evidence from 600 kits.
In Texas, there are over 4,000 untested kits as of 2011. Houston's Police Department made headlines after one case took 16 years to be solved, after DNA from 1995 was finally tested and linked to a serial rapist in prison. 51 untested kits were found this year in Chicago's Cook County, dating from 1986 to 2011.
Rape kit backlog is clearly a national problem, and the excuses justifying it are increasingly more flimsy. Cost is often mentioned — I-Team found that it is approximately $800 to $1200 to test one kit — but unless you're living in Wasilla circa Sarah Palin's time as governor, the expense will eventually be offset by legislation. The SAFER (Sexual Assault Forensic Evidence Registry) Act passed through Congress this year. It proposes to create a national registry to address the backlog and provide states with funds for testing kits and improving facilities.
SAFER and the investigations into police departments such as San Francisco's are positive steps towards resolving this embarrassing issue. Technological advances have made DNA testing possible and so the kits left in storage represent thousands of forgotten victims and any number of unsolved crimes.