Austin police will be able to send forensic evidence to Dallas County under an agreement aimed at clearing up the city’s rape kit backlog.
Austin City Council members unanimously approved a six-year, up to $3.6 million agreement Thursday to use Dallas County’s forensics lab. But the effect it will have on the backlog of sexual assault evidence remains unknown. Austin Police Chief of Staff Brian Manley said he didn’t know how many cases Dallas County would accept.
The Austin Police Department has 610 recent cases involving DNA, including at least 484 rape kits, which contain evidence taken directly from a sexual assault victim’s body. Police have been unable to process DNA since late May, when the lab was closed down because of evidence contamination and processing failures. It is expected to reopen sometime next year.
Meanwhile, the department has been sending DNA evidence to the Texas Department of Public Safety, but the DPS has been able to process only some of it. Sexual assault victims drew attention to the growing backlog in September, begging council members to allow investigation of their cases to proceed.
Police Chief Art Acevedo responded with a promise that he would find the money to do so. Funding for the agreement approved Thursday comes partially from forfeiture funds, seized from criminals, and partially from sources to be determined.
Council Member Greg Casar asked police Thursday to create a report within a month that would detail estimates of how much evidence Dallas County will be able to accept.
“Today’s action gets us a step closer (to clearing the backlog) … but we still don’t know how much closer,” he said in a statement. “That’s not good enough. Survivors in our community deserve to know, at a minimum, what our City’s goals are for when their evidence will be processed.”
Manley emphasized that the agreement with Dallas County is pay-as-you-go — at a cost of $1,190 to $2,215 per kit — so Austin will pay only for the cases that get processed.
“We’ve committed to nothing today,” he told the American-Statesman about the city’s financial obligations under the contract. “We could send them nothing” and the city wouldn’t be out any money.
Manley said clearing the backlog is a top priority and that the Dallas County lab is aware of Austin’s caseload and goals.
The deal is structured to allow processing of DNA evidence for any type of case, but police said they would make sexual assault cases a priority.
Last week, police signed off on a contract with a private lab to do pre-screening of DNA evidence, which could help eliminate cases with no evidentiary value. But Manley said police have to use a governmental entity for full DNA analysis so that results can be put into law enforcement systems.
Council Member Don Zimmerman raised questions about whether the council could approve a six-year contract under the posting language, which proposed a one-year contract with six extensions. Mayor Steve Adler and City Attorney Anne Morgan said the time frame and total maximum amount hadn’t changed, but said Dallas County preferred a single, multiyear deal.
Manley said residents shouldn’t take the agreement to mean that it will take six years to clear up the backlog.