Managing Sexual Assault Kits
Written by Bob Galvin   

In today’s DNA-driven evidence environment, overlooking sexual assault kits (SAKs) that remain untested in an agency’s property and evidence room could present a liability for the agency... and affect everyone from property room personnel right up to the police chief or sheriff. How is it possible for SAKs in any agency’s possession to go untested?


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Consider these conditions:
 
1) Failure to accurately catalog and track the SAKs or responsibly manage them;
2) Poor storage conditions for the kits, leading to possible contamination or biological degradation;
3) Missing or nonexistent police reports on the kits.
 

Photo: NFSTC
 
Of course, the biggest concern with untested SAKs is that the assault victims may be deprived of due justice until kits are processed and DNA discovered that might be tied to a suspect. Without definitive forensic analysis on kits that sit untested in a property room, filing criminal charges cannot occur, evidence brought against the accused may be inadequate, or prosecution could be unreasonably delayed. As a result, the victim’s case might remain unresolved, which may mean a suspected rapist roams free to commit more assaults, or worse.
 
Not All Kits Tested
 
Another emerging issue regarding untested SAKs is that law enforcement agencies that store them in their property and evidence rooms generally have absolute discretion over which of these kits can be forensically examined. Specifically, detectives or investigators working sexual assault cases will usually be responsible for requesting that kits be sent to the forensic lab.
 
Currently, not all kits in all jurisdictions end up being tested. A well-documented case example comes from Detroit, where 11,219 SAKs were discovered shelved in 2009. Of those, 8,717 had not been submitted for forensic testing. The resulting Detroit Sexual Assault Kit (SAK) Action Research Project (ARP) led to the conclusion that all kits should be tested in a timely fashion, regardless of whether the case was perpetrated by a stranger or non-stranger, or whether the case is believed to be beyond the statute of limitations (Campbell et al. 2015).
 
Taking a closer look at the Detroit SAK ARP Final Report:
 
In this project, 1,595 SAKs were selected for testing, which yielded 785 CODIS-eligible profiles (49% of the kits tested), 455 CODIS hits (28.5% of the kits tested; 58% of the profiles entered), and 127 profiles related to serial sexual assaults (8% of the kits tested; 28% of the CODIS hits).
 
The results of the Detroit study indicate that a pile of untested SAKs translates to a collection of undiscovered leads and, potentially, unidentified predators.
 
States Tighten Timeframe For Sexual Assault Kit Evidence Testing
 
While the issue of untested sexual assault kits continues to simmer in many property and evidence rooms, crime laboratories struggle with backlogged cases. These backlogs are caused by an uptick in DNA evidence collected in criminal cases, then submitted to crime laboratories for analysis.
 
This makes it all the more daunting when states mandate that newly collected sexual assault kit evidence be tested within shorter timeframes than before. Currently, SAK testing is mandatory in California, Colorado, Illinois, Michigan, Ohio, Texas, and Wisconsin. For example, California Bill 1517 requires a crime lab to test kits and submit the resulting DNA profiles to CODIS within 30 days. Illinois’ Sexual Assault Evidence Submission Act calls for the submission of kits to state police within 10 days, and analysis of those kits within 10 days. And in Michigan, the 2014 Sexual Assault Kit Evidence Submission Act—a direct result of the Detroit SAK ARP study—requires law enforcement to submit kits to the laboratory within 14 days of receipt from a health care facility.
 
Similar legislation is pending in the District of Columbia, New Jersey, Oklahoma, Tennessee, and West Virginia.
 
Numerous Actions Help Reduce Backlogs
 
Most crime labs face a growing struggle to analyze sexual assault kits that keep building on top of an already demanding workload. Although the DNA backlogs will probably never vanish, they are being alleviated through other helpful aids. For instance, federal funds have been made available to help laboratories purchase automated workstations and high-throughput instruments, hire more analysts and scientists, validate more procedures, and streamline workflow. This all helps the laboratories generate reports faster so that cases hopefully can be resolved sooner. Funds also are being used by some laboratories to outsource work so that they can begin to meet the building demand for DNA services and be able to process DNA samples as part of this demand.
 
Beyond these steps, some law enforcement agencies are taking another bold step: auditing all sexual assault kits in their custody. That’s what the Houston (Texas) Police Department decided was crucial as it prepared to move into a new property and evidence storage facility. According to a story in the February 23, 2015, edition of the Houston Chronicle, the Houston PD announced completed testing of its 6,600 sexual assault kit backlog, which led to 850 hits in CODIS.
 
Electronic Tracking of Sex Crime Kits Needed
 
Meanwhile, the existence of any untested sexual assault kits remains a white-hot issue. Which is why, experts say, property and evidence rooms should utilize an automated information management system to track forensic evidence and to share status of evidence items with key stakeholders: investigators, officers, detectives, criminalists, forensic scientists and analysts, and the prosecutor’s office.
 
If SAKs go untested, the problem also could be linked to an inadequate evidence management system in the property room. After all, without a way to reliably identify what SAKs have been stored, it can be difficult to know what kits exist, their condition, and whether or not they have been sent to the forensic lab for testing. By automating evidence management, this will give property room personnel and the other stakeholders more awareness of the status of SAKs, and may help solve more cases. Such tracking also is essential so that sexual assault evidence kits can be tested before the statutes of limitations on their cases run out.
 
Software Provides Detailed Oversight of Kits
 
One evidence management software program, EvidenceOnQ, is an example of how law enforcement can electronically manage evidence, particularly DNA evidence. The software permits an agency to book sexual assault kits into the evidence database, and to capture, display, and preserve related data, such as: kit manufacturer specimen or packaging numbers; whether or not a kit has been submitted to a forensic laboratory; the specific lab where a kit was submitted; and any associated laboratory case numbers and item numbers.
 
The software provides a search function that allows unlimited queries to be run using any of the captured data as criteria. For example, the software could return queries to determine how many total kits an agency is holding, which kits have already been processed, which ones still need to be sent to the forensic laboratory, and those kits currently at the forensic lab.
 
Agencies operating without evidence management automation, particularly for managing older and inactive cases, may fail to accurately and reliably determine what SAKs they have and where they are located, or if the kits have been analyzed at a forensic laboratory.
 
Managing Mandated Kit Testing
 
The San Antonio (Texas) Police Department property and evidence room currently holds 13,500 sexual assault kits. To track all of these SAKs, the agency utilizes evidence management automation. San Antonio PD has particular urgency with ensuring its SAKs are tested due to passage in 2011 of Texas House Bill 1636, which mandates that SAKs be tested within 30 days of collection. The police department’s Special Victims Unit (SVU) is responsible for ensuring kits are tested within the state timeframe.
 
“We assist in that process by producing a monthly report and providing that to the commander of SVU on any kits that have not had a determination made within the 30-day time limit,” said Darrell Allen, property and evidence room supervisor. “By having an automated tracking system, I can tell in a very short period of time what SAKs have been taken in recently, and then by working through various fields in the software, determine whether the kits have been tested. The software will tell me if the kit has not been tested and how close we are to the expiration of the 30-day time limit.”
 
Queries Help Property Room Alert Investigators
 
Automating evidence management in general and SAK testing status in particular has become crucial. The EvidenceOnQ evidence management software enables Allen to build and save queries on a kit’s testing status.
 
“I can run a query and get a response in 15 seconds based on the qualifiers we’ve built into the software,” noted Allen. Specifically, in the queries, Allen tries to determine all SAKs impounded from September 21, 2011 to the current date. He queries for any SAK, then date-to-lab. “If the response comes back and it fits the query for that timeframe and it has no entry for date-to-lab, this shows up on my query,” said Allen, who then forwards this information to the SVU commander so that appropriate action can be taken.
 
So far, in 2015, the Gilbert (Ariz.) Police Department has only 150 sexual assault kits to manage, but applies the same oversight for them as has San Antonio PD. Compared to San Antonio, not many sexual assaults occur in Gilbert. In 2012, the police department used its evidence management system to audit the 108 SAKS it possessed. Of these, the audit revealed, only 28 had been tested. Data from the evidence management system allowed the department to identify that 80 kits had not been tested. Investigators were able to review those 80 cases and verify they had been appropriately cleared or declared unfounded.
 
Electronic System Helps Generate SAK Statistics
 
Since 2005, Gilbert PD has been using a property and evidence management module within the I/LEADS Records Management System to track sexual assault kits. Arizona presently has no time limit on how soon kits must be tested once collected. The I/LEADS module enables any kind of search by case number or evidence item number. According to Roy Casto, property and evidence supervisor, he enters a case number which brings up the case, allowing him to see chain of custody on any piece of evidence, and if there is a SAK and whether or not it went to the forensic lab and has been returned. Using the records management system, Casto can pull up evidence items by location or description. “I can also write reports asking how many sexual assault kits are in our freezer or how many total kits we have.”
 
Chain of Custody For Kits Proves Most Valuable in Court
 
Because any law enforcement agency’s property and evidence room acts as gatekeeper for sexual assault kits, there must be full and constant awareness of SAK status once a kit is collected. Allen, with the San Antonio PD, advises property room managers at other agencies to “know what inventory they have.” He added, “There needs to be a database for all the individuals involved (with sexual assault kit evidence) to refer to.” If an agency doesn’t have evidence management automated, it at least needs to have SAKs listed on a spreadsheet so this can be used by the property room.
 
While safeguarding sexual assault kits is paramount, tracking a kit’s chain of custody is equally important. Most automated evidence management systems will provide a chain of custody report that electronically shows a sexual assault kit moving from the property and evidence room to the forensic lab or to court. The systems will also capture electronic signatures of those individuals transporting or taking custody of those items.
 
Why are these precautions so crucial? Allen explained, “In a courtroom, locking in chain of custody leaves a defense attorney little opening for questioning possible contamination when DNA evidence is entered. An automated evidence management system ensures this chain of custody.”

 
References
 
Campbell, R., G. Fehler-Cabral, S.J. Pierce, D.B. Sharma, D. Bybee, J. Shaw, S. Horsford, H. Feeney. 2015. Detroit Sexual Assault (SAK) Action Research Project (ARP), Final Report. https://www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/nij/grants/248680.pdf
 
About the Author
 
This e-mail address is being protected from spam bots, you need JavaScript enabled to view it is a freelance writer located in Oregon City, Ore. who covers topics related to law enforcement.
 
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