AUSTIN (KXAN) — The Austin Police Department could potentially reopen dozens of rape investigations after getting the results from its backlog of 2,665 untested rape kits. About 35 percent of the rape kits tested brought back positive DNA findings, which could mean as many as 933 cases.
Austin Police outsourced the DNA testing of the untested rape kits to labs in other states to help tackle the backlog. All the testing was completed in April 2018 and now that investigators have the results, they are “reopening and beginning to work cases that correspond with kits that yielded positive results,” according to a City of Austin memo released Thursday.
When a rape survivor is assaulted, he or she is given a forensic exam called a rape kit. Once the kit is tested, if any DNA other than the victim’s DNA is found, that means it yielded a positive finding.
Investigators can then either take that DNA and run it against any suspect DNA that’s already been obtained, or take the DNA and review it for entry into the Combined DNA Index System, or CODIS.
To date, APD has run six of these cases through CODIS, yielding two hits, meaning that person’s DNA is in the FBI’s database.
The police department is promising to look for ways to speed up the process of running DNA found in the kits through CODIS, using grants and some of its own budget.
“It’s going to be a funding issue and capacity issue trying to identify additional vendors and ways we can get that process streamlined, and then also adding capacity into the current capabilities,” said APD Assistant Police Chief Ely Reyes.
The police department says if a victim’s case is going to move forward, that victim will be notified.
Sex Crimes and Cold Case detectives will prioritize which cases they revisit first.
“If you have a known suspect, if you have something to compare it to, if you have a survivor who’s cooperating with the investigation, as opposed to, we just have an unknown,” Reyes said. “But, we take all of them seriously. They’re all being investigated, but if we have something that we feel is a higher priority, like if we have an ongoing case where there’s a stranger rape that occurred in a park, then we want to prioritize that, because it’s an ongoing threat to the community, as opposed to a case that’s ten years old and we don’t have a suspect.”
Some of these cases date back to the 1990s. The backlog in Austin ballooned to more than 4,000 cases after APD shuttered its DNA crime lab in June 2016. It closed it for good after an audit found serious and longstanding problems with the lab’s testing.
The lab reopened in 2017 but is now overseen by the Texas Department of Public Safety, which conducts DNA testing on behalf of the city.
APD sexual assault clearance problems
This is not APD’s only recent problem with how it handles rape and sexual assault cases. In January, after a different audit, Chief Brian Manley said APD had a systemic problem and for years incorrectly cleared sexual assault cases.
That led to new training for investigators and now a new audit. Earlier this month, the Austin City Council said it wanted an independent investigation to look back at up to seven years of APD rape data.
All of these audits and outsourced testing have already cost the city millions of dollars.