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DNA Deep Freeze

LAPD’s giant freezers, stuffed with old rape cases, evoke a vast warehouse in Raiders of the Lost Ark.
Ted Soqui

New Yorker Sarah Tofte, a Manhattan-based researcher with Human Rights Watch, was looking for a meaningful project to undertake when the trim blonde decided to focus on DNA in rape cases that have sat, untested, on evidence shelves of the nation’s police departments. She had been bothered ever since discovering that, piled high in the deep freezers of law-enforcement agencies around the country, were thousands of fat envelopes containing blood vials, swabs of semen, locks of hair and fingernail scrapings collected from rape victims — in police jargon, “rape kits.”

“It stuck with me,” she says. What secrets were lurking in all that untested evidence from horrible and violent crimes?

Tofte searched for answers in the hundreds of applications from state and local crime labs vying for $755 million from Congress, grant money created after the tragic case of Debbie Smith, a Virginia woman taken from her suburban Williamsburg home, dragged to a wooded area and repeatedly raped by a masked stranger who threatened to find her again. The DNA evidence in her 1989 case sat untested in a freezer for six years in Virginia, and, when finally tested, it proved that her attacker had been in prison while she lived in constant fear of his return.

Experts have suggested a stunning possibility: that 500,000 rape kits, given low priority by scores of police departments, have been sitting untested for years. So in 2008, Tofte began meticulously combing public records from the Department of Justice, to find out whether the federal Debbie Smith grants have really changed anything.

She was stunned to discover that many crime labs, although lagging far behind, haven’t asked for the federal help at all. Others have been sitting on the federal cash or moving incredibly slowly. Accountability has been lax, and many police forces have been spending the money on other things.

New York stood out as a big metropolitan area that’s doing it right. The Los Angeles Police Department stood out too — as what critics see as a DNA disaster zone. L.A. is so many years behind New York’s Office of the Medical Examiner in testing long-stored DNA from sexual-assault cases that the LAPD would need millions of dollars — and a top-level initiative from Chief William Bratton — to ever hope to catch up. Lee Baca’s L.A. Sheriff’s Department is no better, years behind the practices of New York.

Critics say that neither L.A. police force is likely to catch up — and that both of these well-regarded law-enforcement leaders have essentially missed their chance now that we have entered an era of dwindling resources.

In L.A., money now being spent on outside testing labs will soon dry up, and lab workers entering the DNA-test information into computers are stretched far too thin to work on old cases, struggling to handle the hundreds of new requests from detectives that flood their labs. Critics say both the city and the county will need far more space, money and lab workers to have a chance of matching New York’s success.

Frustrated L.A. District Attorney Steve Cooley says, “There is a lot of politics going on with this stuff. A lot of posturing by some politicians. A lot of people hold press conferences — and don’t do much beyond that.”

In November 2007, when the Los Angeles Times reported that thousands of untested rape kits had been sitting in LAPD’s freezers, Tofte, watching from New York, assumed that the deeply embarrassing media headlines that year would spark action by Chief Bratton and Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa.

But instead, City Hall politicians shrugged off pressure from women’s groups and other organizations complaining that rape victims endured a four-hour invasive procedure to collect evidence — only for it to then sit, ignored.

Tofte was struck by L.A.’s failure to fully embrace the use of modern science to fight violent crimes, particularly those against women that are often committed without a witness and rely heavily on trace evidence.

So last May, she flew to L.A. to “find out the politics behind the [DNA] backlog so I would know what I was getting myself into.”

Tofte found that even though LAPD received the largest grant of any California agency — $3,945,820 from the feds between 2004 and 2007 — the situation here has grown worse, not better. Seven hundred new cases a year are getting piled onto the freezer shelves, and Bratton’s oversight was so lacking that L.A. got nicked with a stiff $400,000 fine — half of its allotted federal funding in 2008 — for moving too slowly in using the money.

More shocking to Tofte, Bratton’s management had been ignoring the core intent of the federal Debbie Smith money, using very liberal wording in the law to conduct only a pittance of sexual-assualt tests and instead using it to buy equipment, pay for training excursions, clear up backlogs in homicide cases, and delve into property crimes.

 

“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.

 

LAPD and the Sheriff’s Department “really weren’t up with society” — with both Bratton and Baca lacking the “CSI mentality” that values modern science, Cooley believes. Bratton, he says, “looked at it as a very difficult logistical problem to go through all the cases, analyze them and prioritize them.”

Since the controversy erupted, LAPD detectives have counted a total of 9,911 sexual-assault cases in the freezers. Of those, 4,718 were previously tested and 5,193 were not tested. Of the untested cases, 403 were “stranger rapes,” in which DNA testing could have netted a solid suspect by now; 1,184 were “cleared by arrest,” making DNA tests unnecessary; and 1,796 were rejected by D.A. Cooley, usually because of a hard-to-prosecute ”he said, she said” situation or because the victim refused to cooperate. Now, with 200 rape cases left for so long that they are too old to prosecute, and an unknown number of crimes lurking in the other long-frozen rape kits, it seems doubtful L.A. will ever match the science-based crime-fighting of New York City.

Not far from City Hall is the police evidence facility known as Piper Technical Center, where the backlog of DNA evidence sits frozen inside several huge big-rig-sized freezer containers, some of them located inside a large warehouse, and some placed outside, in a secured open-air parking lot where supercooling cables run into the giant boxes.

Recently, teams of LAPD cops donned thick ski parkas and entered the huge outdoor evidence freezers — the only way to physically eyeball the forgotten old sexual-assault DNA. What the bundled-up detectives found was almost unbelievable. It took 10 days for the 50 cops to count every rape kit, nearly 10,000 of them, representing women, children and even a few men, who withstood an often unpleasant procedure to help police gather DNA evidence from their own bodies — only to have that semen, saliva, skin and other human detritus piled in freezer containers.

“They looked like they were spending the weekend in Big Bear,” recalls Janet Johnstone, the senior property officer who supervised the colossal count by the 50 officers.

The LAPD team wasn’t the only one playing this kind of basic catch-up recently. The political firestorm in L.A. City Hall was so intense that, three blocks up the street in the L.A. County Hall of Administration, the five powerful politicians who make up the County Board of Supervisors began demanding to know whether rape kits held by the Sheriff’s Department are similarly piling up in freezers controlled by Sheriff Baca.

Mimicking what City Hall had done, a group of neophyte sheriff’s deputies bundled up and went inside the Sheriff’s Department freezers — and found the same massive pileups.

A lot of the untested rape kits discovered by the LAPD and Sheriff’s Department will turn out to be nothing. That’s because many of them represent not rapes, but angry girlfriends mad at their boyfriends, prostitutes upset about getting shorted by a john, and all the other odd reasons women and men call the cops and go through rape-evidence collection when, in fact, no rape has occurred. There have been many such noncases in L.A.

There are also thousands of so-called acquaintance rapes, often “he said, she said” situations in which authorities know the identity of the alleged attacker, so that testing his DNA would be largely pointless. So the cops stick all the evidence on a shelf.

But that’s not what has so many people incredibly angry at Bratton and, to a lesser degree, Baca. They’re furious about discoveries like 403 so-called “stranger rapes” left untested on the LAPD shelves, and found in recent weeks by the parka-clad detectives. These are crimes in which the identity of the attacker is unknown and no suspect has been arrested — situations in which DNA testing could be the key. Critics say horrific tragedy is hidden in those rape kits, and the cops knew it, or should have known it.

“Rape is only second to murder,” says Jeri Elster, trying to put into words why rape survivors like herself are watching the DNA-testing controversy in L.A. so closely. “I have often shared publicly that I have to live with it, and it is more of a life sentence than murder can be.”

 

Similar to what is unfolding at LAPD, Sheriff’s Commander Earl Shields says Baca’s department was surprised to find 815 rape kits involving “stranger rape” whose evidence was left untested. Baca and his top brass admit they really don’t know why 815 batches of evidence went ignored. “We aren’t investigating the hows and whys of this — just the best way to fix the issue and get them all tested,” Shields says — a candid admission that the problem is far too big to completely untangle.

At a press conference in February, the LAPD announced that the city freezers contain evidence samples from 9,911 sexual-assault cases, 4,718 of which have been tested, leaving 5,193 still untested.

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.

“My initial reaction was, ‘Why would I want to speak with him?’” he says. But Safir, now CEO of Bode Technology and a lab contractor with the LAPD who analyzes rape kits, invited Scheck to his office. Scheck told him New York had 12,000 frozen rape kits, all involving sexual assaults in which no suspect had yet been found. “I said it was preposterous and he was wrong,” recalls Safir. It turned out to be much worse: They found 17,800. New York didn’t have enough analysts to process the kits, or the lab space to do it. So in 1999, Safir convinced then Mayor Rudy Giuliani to spend $12 million to send the rape evidence to private labs for testing.

The results were remarkable: about 2,000 “hits” — or DNA matches — leading to the solving of 154 cold rape cases, including the heinous attacks on two teenagers by serial rapist Frank Baylor.

Then, in the wake of 9/11, the Office of the Medical Examiner began testing 20,000 human-tissue samples recovered from the rubble of the World Trade Center. By 2006, New York was one of the few cities in the world performing Low Copy Number DNA profiling, which creates genetic profiles of offenders from as little as a few cells of skin — even from the sweat left in a fingerprint.

L.A. has never jumped wholeheartedly into the science of crime. It began falling behind in 1999, when then Chief Bernard Parks questioned the potency of DNA as a crime-fighting tool because the existing state database of offenders against which evidence could be matched was still too small to be useful.

In an interview with City Beat at the time, Parks asked, “Does that overwhelm or cause the system to disintegrate if you don’t have the people to analyze [the DNA evidence]? Then, once you do the analyzing, is the system in default because you don’t have a database to compare it with?”

A former LAPD detective supervisor told the National Commission for the Future of DNA Evidence that same year: “The Los Angeles Police Department, right now, if you didn’t have a suspect in custody and a court date, that thing is not going to get analyzed — whatever it is.’’

In 2002, however, Parks ordered the LAPD property division to preserve all rape-kit evidence after it was discovered that 1,100 kits had been inadvertently destroyed by LAPD — incredibly, to make room for new ones in the city’s overwhelmed freezers by destroying kits the police wrongly believed were past the statute of limitations.

Parks’ own brass did not even realize a new California law had passed on January 1, 2001, bumping the statute of limitations on some sexual-assault cases from six to 10 years. Recalls an appalled Cooley, “They didn’t pick up the phone and call the prosecutors” before the destruction began.

Because of Parks’ huge blunder, Weiss in 2002 called for immediate testing of all rape kits. The Los Angeles Police Commission approved his proposal that November. The freezers contained a growing backlog of all forms of forensic evidence, including 1,800 to 2,500 rape-kit cases.

One LAPD manager quipped at the time that “if this continues we will have freezers lined up to Blythe,” recalls former LAPD property-division manager Steve Johnson. What Parks should have done instead, Johnson says, was “go through and evaluate evidence, [find out] if it is useful or not.”

By 2002, Deputy District Attorney Lisa Khan was openly complaining that L.A. was behind Alabama, Virginia and New York in forensic DNA technology.

Chief Bratton took over in 2003 just in time to get a helping hand from California Attorney General Bill Lockyer’s $50 million “Cold Hit Program,” which was used to test evidence from 1,725 “stranger rapes” in Los Angeles. The special funding not only helped LAPD slog through frozen rape kits that had built up between 1995 and late 2003, but snared a number of extremely violent criminals.

 

The following year, Proposition 69 was passed by California voters, facilitating a vast expansion in the state database of genetic profiles taken from criminals by requiring cops to take DNA samples from convicted felons.

“Prop. 69 made the backlog rape kits that much more significant because [it created] a database to test it against,” says Cooley. “That is why we are at a critical phase now and everyone and their mother is talking” about it.

L.A. law-enforcement agencies spent the next few years in a big squabble over how to design and run their new $102 million crime lab — the Hertzberg-Davis Forensic Science Center, next to Cal State L.A. A raging debate over how much space and equipment to provide for the burgeoning science of DNA sleuthing grew so intense that Cooley’s friend, crime writer James Ellroy — whose mother was murdered in a still-unsolved 1958 crime — urged the locals to place a much greater emphasis on DNA space, staff and equipment.

But Cooley says Baca and Bratton “clearly didn’t have their thinking caps on. They made a huge error” by downplaying the need for DNA labs and space. “The day they moved into the lab, they were already outdated.”

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.

 

Kathy Spillar, executive vice president of the Feminist Majority Foundation, says, “A fraction of the money was used to process the [rape] kits.”

“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.”

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.

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.”

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