Politics & Government

Washington lawmaker tries to tackle thousands of untested rape kits in state

DNA collected in thousands of sexual assault cases has never been tested, sitting in evidence rooms in police departments throughout Washington, but a bill in the Legislature could start to change that.

House Bill 1068, sponsored by Rep. Tina Orwall, D-Des Moines, would require law enforcement agencies to ask state labs to test all rape kits they receive, provided victims have given their consent to have them tested.

If passed, the bill would apply to all new kits collected, but it wouldn’t put any requirements on the potentially thousands of kits that could be sitting in evidence rooms around the state.

To figure out how many kits remain untested, and why, the bill also would create a work group to determine that as well as study the processes involved to see if there are better solutions.

The Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs has already asked its members to voluntarily send in information about how many kits they have on their shelves, and how many new kits their departments receive per year. Agencies that serve about 75 percent of the state’s population submitted their numbers, said Mitch Barker, WASPC executive director.

About 6,000 untested kits were reported, and using the average numbers those agencies received annually, it’s expected that about 1,500 kits are brought in to agencies statewide each year, Barker said.

“When we started this whole discussion, people were shocked, asking why don’t we test every single one?” Barker said. “We would love to have every one tested, but it would bog the lab down immensely.”

Police say there are a variety of reasons kits aren’t sent for testing. In some cases, it’s because the victims know the person who assaulted them, and prosecutors can often use that information to connect a suspect to the case without DNA. Other times, the victim submits the evidence but wishes to remain anonymous.

Bellingham Police Department has more than 60 untested kits, dating back to 2007. About six of those are for anonymous victims.

The main reason for not testing the kits was because the Washington State Patrol crime labs didn’t have enough money or time for testing, said Sgt. David Richards, of Bellingham’s evidence and identification unit.

Once sent to the state lab, the kits are prioritized along with all other DNA testing the lab needs to do, Richards said. Some cases get higher priority based on the type of crime and how fast a case is moving through the courts.

“The work takes time. It’s not like on TV; you don’t get it back in 45 minutes,” Richards said. “Sometimes it takes six to eight weeks, sometimes longer, depending on how backed up they are. Marysville (lab) is backed up now and sending our stuff to the Tacoma lab.”

The oldest kit Richards said he found in Bellingham’s store rooms, from May 2007, hadn’t been tested because the prosecutor’s office got a conviction without it.

During the last week of February, the Whatcom County Sheriff’s Office was looking through its kits to count them and see why they hadn’t been sent in, but as of mid-week, none had been found that would meet the lab’s criteria for testing, said Sheriff Bill Elfo.

Law enforcement: Labs need funding

Bob Calkins, a state patrol spokesman, said the patrol remains neutral on bills. However, he said the WSP was happy to see the bill amended so agencies would simply need to request testing of all kits. In its original form, 1068 would have required police departments to send all the kits they get to the state’s labs, which Calkins said wouldn’t have done anything to solve the problem.

“We didn’t know how many were out there, we didn’t know how many freezers we needed to go buy,” Calkins said. “The issue is if we don’t get more scientists, we’ll certainly do our best to do what the legislature wants, but there will be backlog.”

WASPC had similar concerns, Barker said.

“Unless the lab expands, a lot of those samples would sit forever anyway, just in a new location,” Barker said. “You can make the top of the funnel bigger all you want, it still has to go through the small end of the funnel.”

The state patrol estimates it will need 13 more full-time employees to handle testing all kits in the state. That likely would cost about $6.4 million over the 2015-2017 biennium for the new employees and equipment, according to a legislative fiscal impact estimate.

Barker said the bill would need to provide for that extra funding to have real meaning.

“The fact is we want as much DNA tested as possible. If that’s in the CODIS (Combined DNA Index System) database, there’s no question we’re going to find people who have committed other sexual assaults,” Barker said. “But just mandating the kits go from one storage room to another, our worry is people will think something good is being done, but will transfer their local concerns to the state patrol. ... Absent some funding in the state lab, we think this is just going to be words on paper.”

Getting help

Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault Services of Whatcom County offers a free and confidential 24-hour helpine at 360-715-1563 or 877-715-1563.

Related stories from Bellingham Herald