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It’s hard not to compare L.A. to New York — or to Orange County, whose ultramodern lab is second statewide only to the state of California’s huge crime lab in Richmond. L.A. doesn’t have the worst situation in the nation. But employing just 60 DNA lab workers at LAPD, and just 40 of them at the Sheriff’s Department, is seen by leaders in the movement to fight crime with science as woefully inadequate.
Khan says about 7,000 total crime-scene samples got tested in 2008 by the Sheriff’s Department and LAPD labs, while New York analyzed 12,000. Much smaller Orange County, with a population of just 3 million residents, analyzed 2,500 DNA case samples with its budget of $14.5 million.
Both New York and Orange County analyze not just rapes, but burglaries and other crime scenes in which “touch” DNA is left in fingerprints. “I would love to analyze every case that comes in the door,” says LAPD lab director Greg Matheson. “New York analyzes all of them. That is a better way to do business.”
Yet some agencies in Southern California were mystified as they watched Bratton react to press stories about the rape kits by spending a fortune to test every old sexual-assault sample instead of creating a more fully thought-out process.
“We only examine a fraction of sexual-assault kits that come in,” says Mike Grubb, manager of the San Diego Police Department crime lab. “If the detective decides that there is not good cause to do analysis of a rape kit, they don’t request it. I am sure there are hundreds or even thousands of rape kits sitting in our freezer that haven’t been analyzed — because there is no reason to do it.”
Another systemic problem in L.A. is the failure, until now, to use “batching” — a technique used by New York and Orange County that has been shown to be more efficient.
One impressive result in Orange County has been that its Sheriff’s Department solves more cold crimes through DNA matches than any lab in California. Dean Gialamas, lab director there, says it helps that he is “one person away from the sheriff” in his ability to argue for more funding.
Laura Chick believes it will take more than public embarrassment to get Bratton and Villaraigosa more seriously focused on this science. She sees Bratton and Villaraigosa as far too interested in what makes an easy sell at election time — like the popular idea of putting more cops on the street.
Says Chick, “The priority of the LAPD is about hiring sworn personnel and buying more radios. Bratton says those radios are about officer safety or antiterrorism. Tell that to a rape victim. ... It is about politics and campaign promises. Is more cops so important that we have to drop other things? Do we have a safe city when we aren’t prosecuting potential serial rapists?”
Despite getting $4 million in grant funds over the past few years, Chick notes that the backlog of untested rape kits increased under Bratton. Her audit does not mention why: The bulk of the money went to equipment, out-of-town training and travel expenses for lab personnel, testing newer cases as requested by detectives, and modestly expanding tests done on DNA evidence found at the scenes of burglaries and other property crimes.
“The politicians didn’t react until they were stung by Laura Chick’s audit,” says Cooley. “Then all of a sudden they found the money here and there and everywhere — and of course they had their usual press conferences.”
Detective Beck admits that detectives now face 403 cases where police never determined a suspect — yet failed to pursue DNA testing. Beck suspects “myriad reasons,” including poor communication between detectives and the crime laboratory, insufficient staffing in the crime lab and shortcomings in the work of some detectives. As Beck explained at the LAPD’s first DNA Task Force meeting in February, even rape detectives “need review. You can become jaded and callous.”
The L.A. Sheriff’s Department also discovered some chilling facts concerning its own stored rape kits, including cases from the department and from 47 small-city agencies that use the county lab: It determined that a staggering 25 percent — or 815 — of its untested-rape-kit cases are “stranger rapes” that remain unsolved, including 701 Sheriff’s Department cases.
Alarmingly, 3 percent of the cases sitting frozen at the county facility were within six months of going beyond the 10-year statute of limitations, and another 8 percent were within six months of being two years old — the cutoff point for DNA testing. Nearly one-tenth of the kits were already beyond the 10-year statute.
“We suspected detectives were on top of this stuff, and if it came to ‘stranger rape’ they would have contacted us,” says county lab director Fisher. “I guess we thought incorrectly that detectives would be sending the kits to us. For some reason, it didn’t happen. I simply don’t know what the answer is.”