The Houston Police Department’s backlog of untested rape kits totals between 6,000 and 7,000 – 50 percent more than what officials previously acknowledged, according to a memo from Chief Charles McClelland.
HPD for years has insisted that the backlog of untested rape kits was around 4,000. The details from the chief’s memo confirm a Houston Chronicle report that the backlog likely was far greater.
The backlog also is likely to continue to grow. According to McClelland’s memo, HPD receives some 930 new rape kits each year. HPD officials previously have said the department is able to test only 30 to 40 a month.
A backlog that could include as many as 7,000 untested rape kids should be a cause for major concern, saidJohnny Mata, an activist for the Greater Houston Coalition for Justice.
“There’s people in jail that may be innocent,” Mata said. “There’s women that may be fearing for their lives. It’s unacceptable.”
McClelland’s five-page memo was produced in response to a series of questions from Councilwoman Jolanda Jones, who lectured department and city officials during a City Council meeting Wednesday for being unresponsive. Jones said HPD and city officials had been vague in response to her lengthy inquiry about progress in researching and examining a backlog of sexual assault kits.
The discussion was prompted by a council vote to accept a National Institute of Justice grant totaling $821,814 to study and test Houston’s backlog of untested kits. The funding is part of a two-phase, $1.14 million award from the NIJ. The bulk of the money will go toward determining the reasons rape kits go untested and how to reduce the backlog more quickly.
Jones was the only council member to vote against accepting the second-phase money, saying she could not gauge whether previous grant dollars were being used effectively, based on the information from HPD.
Mayor Annise Parker said that the city could not provide an exact figure for the amount of untested rape kits but offered a range of 6,000 to 7,000.
“We do not have an exact number of rape kits in each category because part of these dollars were to do an audit of exactly that and we have endeavored to explain that process to you,” Parker said to Jones.
McClelland’s memo explained that the department was working to finalize an audit relative to the number, “however, the initial inventory counting is complete.”
Responding to Jones’ questions about the number of kits tested, McClelland’s memo stated that the two-phase NIJ grant “allows for approximately 320 cases to be outsourced for testing. That outsourcing process is ongoing.” The grant has also supported the screening of 1,000 kits, so far. The screening is used to determine whether there is enough biological evidence for a sexual assault kit to be used for DNA testing.
The department conducted an audit that determined that between 16,000 and 17,000 rape kits dating back to the 1980s are stored in HPD’s property division, the memo said. Of those, roughly a third, or between 6,000 and 7,000, have not been examined.
DNA testing at HPD’s crime lab was temporarily suspended in 2002, after an independent audit revealed shoddy forensic work, including unqualified personnel, lax protocols and facilities that included a roof that leaked rainwater onto evidence.
Since the lab resumed operations five years ago, the roof and other interior problems have been fixed. The lab also has reduced or eliminated backlogs in areas such as narcotics and ballistics.
Cutting down the rape kit backlog has been a challenge because of a lack of resources and personnel, HPD officials have said.
HPD spokesman John Cannon said the first phase of the grant, totaling $178,000, was to “help us determine the reasons for the backlog and to prevent that from happening again in the future.”
Councilman Oliver Pennington called for regular reports on progress to work through the backlog.
Former chief’s support
Councilman C.O. Bradford, the former police chief, agreed with the nature of Jones’ inquiry, which he called “quite voluminous,” but said HPD had provided enough information to warrant support for the grant.
“I’m convinced that Chief McClelland is doing everything that he possibly can and that he takes it very, very seriously and understands the impact that the analysis of these kits that are being stored can have on our criminal justice process today,” Bradford said. “But it comes down to resource and this is an example of resources being garnered to help move forward in the process.”