Austin City Council unanimously approved a contract at its general meeting Thursday for Austin Police Department to have its backlogged sexual assault forensic tests processed at a lab in Dallas to address hundreds of sexual assault cases left without DNA results.
The Texas Forensic Science Commission shut down APD’s crime lab in June due to untrained staff and outdated methods, according to the commission’s audit report. Since the closure, the Texas Department of Public Safety has been processing an average of 20 DNA tests per month, but new cases keep piling up. According to APD officials, there are 722 pending sexual assault cases and 588 involving unprocessed rape kits since 2014.
“Today’s action gets us a step closer to [clearing the backlog], but we still don’t know how much closer,” council member Greg Casar said in a press release. “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.”
The city’s six-year contract with the Southwestern Institute of Forensic Sciences at Dallas that will process APD’s tests may not exceed $3.6 million.
APD chief of staff Brian Manley said APD will allocate $1.6 million from its own budget to jumpstart the process as well. It takes about $1,190 to $2,215 to process each kit.
“This [money] is going to be the most important step in getting this agreement in place so we can start sending out the kits to be examined,” Manley said.
The police department recently received funding from the New York County District Attorney’s Office that will allow APD to send these kits to other states, such as Utah, to reduce the backlog.
Manley said at City Council’s work session Tuesday that it is uncertain how many tests the Dallas lab will receive.
“When we get this interlocal agreement in place, we’ll have discussions on the lab as far as how many kits [Dallas] wants to take,” Manley said. “We don’t want to ship everything to them.”
In the 2017 fiscal year budget passed in September, the Council included $1.4 million in funding to pay for seven analysts and one supervisor for when APD’s crime lab reopens — which, APD officials say, may happen mid-2017.
“It’s going to take a little bit of time in order to make that happen to make sure that we’re finding the best possible candidates and … preventing something like this from happening again in the future,” said Victoria Berryhill, communications coordinator for the SAFE Alliance.
Austin’s SAFE Alliance is a partnership between Austin’s Children Shelter and SafePlace, a nonprofit organization which provides sexual assault forensic examinations to victims.
SafePlace also sends sexual assault nurse examiners to UT students to conduct these exams through its partnership with University Health Services.
“We are glad that APD is moving forward with ensuring that all of the backlogged kits get tested and all that evidence does get processed … to continue moving forward with pursuing justice for these survivors,” Berryhill said.