Neither the Sheriff’s Department nor the LAPD — both now hiring extra DNA techs who need a year or more of training — has the manpower, funding or organizational setup to quickly handle the bulging workload and the test results stemming from this controversy.
Bratton promised to test every new kit. But in L.A., which averages 800 rapes a year, it is hard to see how this is feasible, even if the work is sent to outside labs. A lot of the work — like entering results of rape-kit analysis into the crime-database system known as CODIS — still has to be done by city workers, and currently it takes two to six hours to review a single analysis report, says LAPD lab director Matheson.
LAPDs giant freezers, stuffed with old rape cases, evoke a vast warehouse in Raiders of the Lost Ark.
With so many problems, it may be years before the LAPD can set in motion its plan to test DNA left behind at burglaries — something New York has done for years. In 2007, the LAPD participated in a federal program by the National Institute of Justice to determine the value of testing DNA traces left during property crimes. The LAPD tested DNA from the sites of property crimes in the San Fernando Valley, with intriguing results: “An amazing number of [burglars] eat and leave food behind,” says Matheson. “The first six [DNA] hits we got were serious offenders.”
The media attention has been a godsend to Matheson, who says he has “been asking for this for quite some time.” He notes, “A police officer can take someone off the street, but you need labs to convict them of something. One of the best things to happen to our lab was the negative reporting [about its underfunding] during the O.J. Simpson trial.”
At the end of March, Tofte’s Human Rights Watch will release its findings about how to fix L.A.’s lagging efforts. One of Human Right Watch’s goals is to persuade Congress to rework the Debbie Smith Act so that labs are forced to use a certain percentage of the funds to test old rape kits.
Will L.A. ever catch up to New York? New York’s “city leaders, police commissioner and mayor made a commitment to forensic science and funded it — and we haven’t seen that commitment on this end yet,” says Deputy D.A. Khan. “And we probably now won’t see it at all.”