Austin Police Chief Art Acevedo firmly assured the Austin City Council last Monday that he would resolve the city’s rape kit backlog — and quickly.
“Just for clarity,” said Council Member Greg Casar, who became a champion of the effort during this budget cycle, “it’s not just grant dollars. We are going to commit and prioritize within this fiscal year’s budget, the funding that we need in order to process all the sexual assault evidence kits between now and the reopening of the forensic lab?”
“Absolutely,” Acevedo responded.
By Friday, however, the Police Department hadn’t said how much money it planned to put toward that or how long it would take to test the kits. A prior analysis had determined that with an extra $500,000 committed, it would take at least four years to work through the hundreds of untested evidence kits.
Police Chief of Staff Brian Manley said in a Friday news conference there’s no way the Police Department would resolve the backlog by the time the lab, which has been closed since May, reopens next spring.
“I don’t think it’s possible,” he said. “Even if we had the funds, labs don’t have the capacity to work through the backlog by February.”
The issue of untested rape kits — evidence taken from the body of a sexual assault victim — came to the forefront of Austin’s budget talks earlier this month, when victims and advocates turned out to tell personal stories of the months and years they’ve waited for evidence to be processed.
Austin, along with other cities across the country, received funding to resolve a backlog of some 3,000 cases — many of them decades-old, which police chose not to test for a variety of reasons — after a new federal law required all kits to be tested. But a more recent backlog of cases still actively under investigation includes about 208 rape kits and 392 sexual assault cases with other forms of DNA evidence, Manley said.
The department received a $200,000 grant last week aimed at processing DNA that isn’t from rape kits, such as evidence on sheets or clothing. But that money might only be enough to process 50 or so cases, Manley said.
Where the rest of the money will come from is unclear. Manley said in Friday’s news conference that the department would use whatever internal resources were necessary, but what those are hasn’t been identified.
Casar said Friday that he was confident the police would live up to their promise to prioritize testing sexual assault evidence and he hoped they would release details quickly as to how they would do that.
“The department needs to look at multiple private labs, do whatever it needs to do to get them processed,” he said.
Since its lab closed, the Police Department has sent most of its DNA evidence to the Texas Department of Public Safety to be processed, though Manley said some evidence has been sent to private labs as well. In a July report, the Texas Forensic Science Commission recommended the Police Department designate “a significant amount of funds to outsource casework.”
“Though the Department of Public Safety may be able to absorb some of the caseload in the interim, it is not realistic to believe they can absorb it all,” the commission’s report said.