The effort to test hundreds of backlogged forensics samples, mostly from alleged sexual assaults, will take significantly longer than first expected, despite calls from victims rights organizations and a recent Austin City Council pledge of millions of dollars.
The revelation from Austin police leaders is the latest fallout facing the Police Department from the abrupt closure of its DNA lab after questions about the integrity of evidence the facility analyzed. The city’s Public Safety Commission estimated Tuesday that the city could easily be without a DNA lab until summer 2018 by the time officials implement a new way to locally analyze DNA evidence collected from Austin crime scenes.
Assistant Police Chief Troy Gay told the commission Tuesday that the department is struggling to find both public and private labs that can handle a workload of the size that Austin police want. More than 600 samples are currently sitting on the shelves of the shuttered lab while evidence from 20 to 30 new sexual assault cases comes in each month, Gay said.
Police leaders had initially said they had hoped to send up to 100 cases per month to the Southwestern Institute of Forensic Sciences in Dallas County. Now, that lab has told the department it can only accommodate 20 samples a month.
“We realize that today we have challenges, and we need to address those,” Gay said. “We are looking at other labs, other inter-local agreements — anything we can do to try to address the backlog and the current cases that are coming in today. There is an urgency at our department to address things that are occurring today.”
Police gave no timeline for when testing on all cases might be complete.
The Austin police lab was already facing a backlog before its recent woes started, but concerns among sexual assault victims mounted after the lab’s closure in June, as many wondered whether it would delay major criminal cases.
Victims and organizations appealed to city leaders to come up with an alternative solution, and the council responded in November by approving a six-year contract of up to $3.6 million agreement for outside testing.
The Police Department has been sending some of its DNA to the Texas Department of Public Safety lab since June, and in December, it started shipping some of it to the Dallas County facility. Still, DNA evidence isn’t being tested as often as it comes in, Gay acknowledged.
“It will likely take us years to clear that backlog at that rate,” said Council Member Greg Casar, who has worked closely with sexual assault victims on the issue.
Casar said he has urged interim Police Chief Brian Manley to find more private labs where Austin can send evidence.
“My expectation is that APD fulfills its commitment to clearing that backlog,” Casar said. “This is such a high priority issue for the city that I don’t believe we can overemphasize the importance of it.”
Emily LeBlanc, director of the Austin-based sexual assault victims’ resource center SAFE Alliance, said she hates that the backlog of rape kits continues to grow.
“It keeps sexual assault offenders on the street longer,” LeBlanc said. “We see so few survivors coming forward to report. When that process becomes even longer, it makes it even less likely that perpetrators will be prosecuted. Also, we know most perpetrators are repeat offenders, so they’re likely raping others in the meantime.”
LeBlanc said her center used to tell victims that the criminal process usually takes a couple of years. “Now we don’t know what to tell them,” she said.
Still, LeBlanc said she is glad that officials seem to be taking the issue seriously now.
“Hopefully solutions can come out of this process that will help survivors in the future,” she said.
Also at the meeting Tuesday, members of the Public Safety Commission sharply questioned Gay about how the lab’s operation had spiraled in recent years into what they called a crisis.
The Police Department shut down the DNA section of its forensic lab after a state audit was highly critical of some of the lab analysts’ techniques. A Texas Forensic Science Commission report released over the summer concluded that one of the lab’s DNA testing practices raised “concerns about the APD DNA lab’s understanding of foundational issues in DNA analysis.”
“We all know what has happened here has been a colossal management failure. … There’s lots of examples of labs having problems, but I don’t think there’s too many where the lab completely collapses,” city Public Safety Commissioner Kim Rossmo said.
The issue reached a climax last month. On Dec. 12, DPS officials, who were retraining the Austin Police Department’s six DNA analysts in an effort to restore the lab’s operations, told police they had lost confidence in four of the technicians and refused to continue working with them. Four days later, Manley said the lab wouldn’t reopen as previously planned.
Prosecutors are currently reviewing up to 5,000 cases to see if lab mistakes could have resulted in wrongful convictions.
Austin police officials will now rely on outside experts to help them figure out what form a future DNA lab should take, Gay said. A few ideas that Austin and Travis County officials have floated include putting the lab under the supervision of the Travis County medical examiner’s office or creating a government lab that works separately from any current branch of the criminal justice system.
On Jan. 26, the City Council will likely vote on whether to negotiate and execute a contract with a firm that can assess the situation and determine the best way forward. However, that firm’s report could take up to six months to complete, Gay said.
“Then, there will be commissions and meetings and panels to discuss the findings, and there won’t be a decision made for at least another year,” Rossmo said, predicting how long it could take to implement the report’s recommendations.
Rossmo said the process could take until 2020, “unless the city and the Police Department see this as something of urgency.”
Commissioners also asked Gay whether Austin police have opened an internal investigation regarding how the DNA lab got to this point.
Gay said officials plan to rely on the report from the firm the city hires to review the lab’s operations to help them conduct that investigation.
“We believe the look-back will help us identify where the challenges were and if there were mistakes made. If those mistakes were made and they were negligent, then we will attempt to hold those individuals accountable,” Gay said.