By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
“I don’t feel they followed the spirit of the law,” Tofte says, “to bring justice to rape victims.” She also learned that, over at the L.A. Sheriff’s Department, Lee Baca has failed to test old rape evidence in the freezers there.
Suddenly, the normally shy New Yorker found herself in the role of sought-after spokesperson for a controversy in a town she was merely visiting. In a moment now crystallized in her memory, Tofte came face to face with Bratton in an elevator at Parker Center Police Headquarters one day last spring. Instead of pouncing, she decided not to bother him because “it was the end of the day and he was probably tired.”
It was a decision she now regrets — and her activist friends good-naturedly took jabs at her over it. She missed her chance to pigeonhole the powerful Bratton, and soon after that she encountered one unpleasant experience after another at L.A. City Hall.
Over a period of several days, Tofte bounced from one obscure City Council “committee meeting” to the next. She discovered that only City Councilman Jack Weiss, a former U.S. Attorney, was trying to get his colleagues interested in the untested rape-kit evidence. She met with staffers for Eric Garcetti and Wendy Greuel, who advised her to take her concerns to the council committee meetings.
Tofte was smart, and quickly grasped that she should seek help from the best-known local whistleblower, City Controller Laura Chick. She alerted Chick that she believes a vast mountain of DNA evidence is sitting untested in L.A., and Chick promptly conducted a fiscal investigation into how the city has been spending its federal Debbie Smith DNA-testing money.
Last fall, Chick released an audit that was scathing even by her standards. In a major and unusual slam of Bratton’s leadership abilities, she accused LAPD of mismanagement, lax oversight that appeared to have left 7,000 untested kits sitting in freezers, and — most damning for victims and many others — blowing past the legal deadline for prosecuting up to 200 potential sexual-assault cases.
The media pounced on the story — the second flurry of embarrassing headlines over the city’s rape-DNA backlog in two years. At an October 28 press conference, Villaraigosa suddenly got religion, with the mayor vowing, “When I put my word to it, you can take it to the bank: If you are a rapist and you think you got away, forget it.”
But the notion that LAPD has long sat on potentially incriminating information was a black eye for Bratton, Villaraigosa — and everyone else in the political food chain. It quickly became apparent that Bratton and his underlings had no clue how many thousands of untested rape-incident specimens there were, nor how many of those specimens could help the cops to solve rape cases and other serious crimes.
Other California agencies clearly disagree with the approach in L.A., as reflected in their funding priorities. Although Orange County also faces serious backlogs, it spends much more heavily on the science end of things. One result is that the Orange County Sheriff’s Department solves more cold crimes through DNA matches than any lab in California — 1,250 such crimes since 1996. The lab is so productive that it now testing of high-profile cases for L.A. County cities including Beverly Hills and Santa Monica because Sheriff Lee Baca’s L.A. County lab, mired in the same rape-kit controversy as the LAPD, takes far too long.
“LAPD should have a budget 10 times our budget,” says Dean Gialamas, a lab director in Orange County. “If you have an agency head who isn’t putting DNA ahead, they will be left behind — and won’t be able to keep up.”
Hammered last fall with ugly nationwide press coverage about the thousands of untested evidence kits, Bratton reacted swiftly, moving the crime lab that tests DNA from the Technical Services Division to the Detectives Bureau, thus placing important DNA-testing duties under Chief of Detectives Charlie Beck, a hard-nosed, no-nonsense veteran cop. Bratton created a DNA Task Force — and wisely included whistleblower Tofte.
Having ignored Tofte, suddenly the L.A. City Council jumped into action, approving part of the funding long sought by Weiss — back when times were flush. Amid a quickly worsening recession, the council agreed to add 16 more DNA analysts and support staff to the existing team of 44 staffers, plus $250,000 for the hiring of private laboratories to aid in the testing. D.A. Cooley is not impressed, saying Los Angeles law-enforcement leaders are failing to keep up with a fast-changing world.
“It became a priority with the LAPD just recently, when they took a lot of heat,” says Cooley, sitting in his 18th floor office at L.A.’s Criminal Courts Building. He openly admires New York’s Office of the Medical Examiner, by far the nation’s largest DNA lab, located in a Manhattan high-rise with more than 125 DNA analysts, state-of-the-art testing labs, storage and a center to train future lab workers.In stark contrast to L.A., New York tests all its DNA evidence, including that recovered from burglary scenes, and performs “touch DNA” tests — analyzing such minuscule traces that they can match the sweat left in fingerprints.