Human rights group criticizes L.A. police agencies over untested rape kits

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An international human rights group reports that police agencies in Los Angeles County often fail to test DNA evidence in rape cases. The Human Rights Watch report says the problem extends far beyond the LAPD and Sheriff's Department, as previously reported. KPCC's Frank Stoltze has more, but a warning: this report contains graphic descriptions.

Frank Stoltze: More than a year ago, Human Rights Watch researcher Sarah Tofte set out to investigate how police agencies in Los Angeles County handle DNA evidence in rape cases. One of the first things she learned was how that evidence is collected. It can be hard to hear.

Sarah Tofte: A forensic nurse examiner will swab and examine every area of the victim's body where the victim indicates that the perpetrator has touched her or ejaculated or bitten her or licked her or where there's been intercourse. So that can involve vaginal, anal, skin cells, they will look at all the hair fibers that might be on the victim's body.

Stoltze: The exam can last six hours. For rape victims who agree to go through this process – and not all are willing – it's more than a little frustrating to learn that police often fail to test the genetic material they collect to see if it might lead them to the rapist.

Human Rights Watch found police agencies in Los Angeles County have a backlog of more than 12,000 untested rape kits. Ten percent are from unsolved cases in which the attacker was a stranger – cases where the only lead may lie in the state's DNA database.

Jeri Estler: I'm a rape survivor, having been the victim of a home invasion stranger rape on August 27th, 1992.

Stoltze: Jeri Elster's been working to prevent rapes in Los Angeles for more than a decade.

Estler: The real crime is that there will be more victims like me. I chose to take on this work so that wouldn't happen. And I am devastated, I am disgusted, I don't even have words for how I feel that one more person may be in this condition – this many years later!

Stoltze: The LAPD and Sheriff's Department already have faced scrutiny over their more than 10,000 untested rape kits. But Human Rights Watch found another 2,700 untested rape kits sit in storage freezers at nearly 50 smaller police agencies across the county.

The group urged those departments to begin a manual audit of those kits. LAPD Deputy Chief Charlie Beck says his department's already doing that.

Charlie Beck: We've done the audit that Sarah talked about, we've prioritized our cases, we're building a case tracking system that's specifically going to deal with sexual assault kits so this never happens to anybody again.

Stoltze: But police have waited so long to address the backlog, they're overwhelmed with DNA evidence. Beck says the LAPD needs more criminalists to conduct the testing, but elected officials have tended to support hiring more police officers instead.

Beck: Hiring cops is sometimes more sexy than hiring criminalists. So you have to realize that we do need more police officers, but we do need more criminalists.

Stoltze: Critics of the LAPD say it's the department that's placed a priority on hiring cops over criminalists – and on the building of a new $500 million police headquarters. Sarah Tofte of Human Rights Watch points a finger at Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who refused to meet with her group.

Tofte: In New York, the backlog got solved in large part because our mayor at that time – Mayor Rudy Giuliani – made a commitment to eliminating the backlog and when he made that commitment, everyone else fell in line.

And I have to say the mayor's leadership on this issue has been disappointing. He's been virtually absent on this issue.

Stoltze: Last year, the mayor promised to back a plan to hire 24 more LAPD criminalists. Activists will learn whether he follows through on that promise when he releases his new budget in a few weeks.