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
No City Council members at the press conference asked Bratton a single question about what has gone wrong under his watch. And only during a media interview later did Detective Charlie Beck admit that 403 sexual assault kits went untested in cases in which police could never identify suspects, raising the question of why the DNA was ignored.
Are there hundreds of rapists out there, and 403 women, children and men who never got justice?
Instead of being up-front about that possibility, the Bratton press conference morphed into a bragging session about the LAPD’s accomplishments — all that counting work at Piper Tech’s freezers.
Although Bratton claims to be “transparent,” he put out a press release that came off as defensive, pointing out that the media had reported there were 7,000, rather than 5,193, untested rape kits. It was an obvious swipe at Controller Chick but also a faux pas, because Bratton’s own people had provided Chick the 7,000 figure, clearly confused about their own data.
Stung by activists and the public, Bratton now insists he will finish testing the evidence by the summer of 2010. His new policy has swung wildly to the opposite side of his past practice of letting detectives decide what to test. Now LAPD tests all kits, even thousands of purported “acquaintance rapes,” in which the name of the alleged rapist is known. It’s evidence that California cops typically do not test, but that activists believe could unmask serial attackers who commit acquaintance rapes in different cities.
Both Bratton and Baca are quick to blame a lack of funding for leading to the controversy. But in fact, had either Bratton or Baca made crime-fighting through science their key priority — both were more interested in adding cops on the street — funding may have flowed forth during the go-go years of fat budgets and fat property taxes, before the recession hit.
Skeptics like Deputy District Attorney Lisa Khan, seen by many as Southern California’s leading DNA guru, say the argument that they couldn’t get the money is a case of passing the buck. Both agencies receive more than $2 million yearly from state taxpayers and “can’t complain too much about not having the money,” she says dismissively.
It’s now extremely unlikely that either LAPD or the Sheriff’s Department will resolve their DNA-backlog crisis any time soon, because their labs are overwhelmed by a never-ending stream of cases, staffed so poorly that small law-enforcement agencies using the sheriff’s lab in L.A. County opt to hire their own technicians — and even go to neighboring counties.
Sheriff’s spokesman Shields admits Baca’s department cannot afford to test the rape kits on its shelves, and doesn’t know if it ever will. And LAPD’s new crime-lab space — a gleaming building near Cal State L.A. — is already far too small to handle the load it now faces. The 16 extra lab workers hastily funded by the City Council were moved to the lab at aging Piper Tech because they “were basically sitting on each other’s laps” in the too-small new lab, says Johnstone.
Despite the great show made by the chief and Villaraigosa at recent press conferences, other departments are suffering, including the property division that houses all the criminal evidence. Johnstone is so underfunded she buys her own red markers to label the rape kits. She estimates that about 50 percent of the effort right now is burned up simply by having to pull mountains of long-forgotten envelopes off the icy shelves, and methodically remove the urine samples inside — so they don’t rupture and damage the trace evidence. And the office is so overwhelmed by work in the wake of the political outcry, it’s had to temporarily put aside a narcotics-destruction project — in which confiscated drugs are burned — aimed at making room for more evidence.
“The rape kits are taking precedence over everything,” says Johnstone, an amiable civilian officer with a spiky hairdo. “You are never caught up. You are always behind.”
Had Bratton and Baca taken a more proactive lead in promoting science as a top crime-fighting tool during the past several years, the region could be a leader, says D.A. Cooley. For L.A. to even hope of catching up, Cooley says, “someone is going to have to spend some money ... and spend it wisely, in some prioritized scheme, instead of saying, ‘Let’s just test everything.’ That is a very simplistic view of the world.”
“New York City is way ahead of the pack, with what they are doing,” says L.A. County Sheriff’s Department lab director Barry Fisher. “They are pushing the envelope, looking at evidence that might not normally be able to be evaluated.” When it comes to DNA sleuthing, L.A. “is not even close.”
Back in 1997, New York had a rape-kit debacle of its own. As former New York City Police Commissioner Howard Safir tells it now, he had no clue that there was a backlog of untested DNA evidence until former O.J. Simpson defense attorney Barry Scheck called to complain.