More than 13,400 rape kits, including some that could prove critical in the prosecution of sexual assaults, remain untested and sitting on the shelves in Florida police and sheriff’s departments, according to a statewide survey released Monday.
Of those, more than 9,400 kits containing possible DNA evidence should be submitted for analysis but have not been, according to the findings of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.
And the backlog appears likely to grow, the FDLE suggested, because of shortages of funding and analysts coupled with a 141 percent increase in rape kit submissions to state labs during the last four years.
Florida does not require sexual assault kits be submitted, according to the FDLE, leaving the decision to local law enforcement agencies. When asked why a rape kit sat on a shelf, 41 percent of survey respondents said the victim chose not to proceed with the investigation.
Other reasons: the state attorney’s office declined to prosecute (31 percent of cases), the suspect pleaded guilty (20 percent) or the victim of the alleged assault did not want to file a police report (18 percent.)
In Broward County, Fort Lauderdale police reported 527 untested rape kits, of which 200 should be submitted. There are 277 untested kits in the Broward Sheriff’s Office, which said all should be tested. Neither Broward Sheriff’s Office or Fort Lauderdale police responded to a request for comment.
Other Broward agencies, including Coral Springs, Margate, Pembroke Pines and Miramar, reported having untested rape kits, but none that should be submitted. Police in Plantation, Sunrise and Wilton Manors reported having no untested rape kits.
The Hollywood Police Department submitted a survey that was blank, according to FDLE spokeswoman Gretl Plessinger. An audit in August, 2013, revealed that department had a backlog of 94 sexual assault cases and that some rape kits had gone untested for nine years. As soon as the department began testing the kits, three rape suspects were identified.
Jaime Hernandez, a spokesman for Hollywood police, said the department did complete the survey and was unsure “why there is no data or information in our submission to FDLE.” He said the department has taken action “to ensure all rape kits are properly tested.”
In Palm Beach County, the Sheriff’s Office reported 1,232 untested kits, with 938 that should be submitted for testing. The agency could not be reached for comment Monday despite attempts by phone and email.
Palm Beach County Commissioner Melissa McKinlay said she was surprised that the state report showed that the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office had 938 sexual assault kits that should be submitted for testing.
“I thought that we were in a better position,” said McKinlay, who helped launch The Butterfly House, Palm Beach County‘s first sexual assault response medical services center.
Testing all sexual assault evidence kits, even in cases where the victim opts not to pursue charges, can help catch offenders, McKinlay said. “I would like to see all kits tested, so long as we can protect the victim’s identity,” McKinlay said.
The West Palm Beach Police Department questions the state report’s findings about how many of its sexual assault evidence kits still need to be tested. That’s because the police department itself doesn’t know how many of its kits for old cases have actually been tested, according to West Palm Beach Police Sgt. David Lefont.
The state report says that the West Palm Beach Police Department has 500 sexual assault kits that should be submitted for testing. But that number was actually the total number of kits that the department had at the time the report was created, which included kits that were tested for old cases but were not resolved, police said.
Sorting through the backlog of old cases, to determine how many of the city’s kits remain untested and how many had tests completed, could take as long as three months, Lefont said. West Palm Beach police have been using federal grants to pay for testing evidence kits from about 30 older cases each year, Lefont said.
“It really is a huge help,” Lefont said about the federal help to test old evidence kits.
Boca Raton police officials reported 59 untested rape kits, none of which were scheduled to be submitted, according to the report. “It’s not a matter of time or cost; we do not have any kits that should have been submitted,” Boca Raton police spokeswoman Sandra Boonenberg said.
The Delray Beach Police Department was one of a handful in Florida that did not take part in the survey, according to the FDLE report.
More than 25 percent of Florida’s untested rape kits, a total of 3,593, were in Miami-Dade County, within the City of Miami and Miami-Dade police departments.
Mary Reidel, president of Women in Distress of Broward County, which works with domestic violence victims, said the survey results pointed up “a huge and pretty startling issue.
“Clearly it is not acceptable [to have potentially unanalyzed evidence].”
Awareness of DNA’s importance in exonerating the innocent and convicting the guilty “has grown exponentially in recent years,” the FDLE said.
Backlogs of untested rape kits have been an issue across the U.S. In September, federal officials said an estimated 70,000 rape kits sitting in laboratories and evidence collection rooms across the country would be tested with a combined $79 million in federal and New York City funds.
In November Gov. Rick Scott announced he would seek $8.5 million to help process Florida’s backlog. But the FDLE found the estimated cost of to the job to range as high as $32 million and take from three to nine years.
Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi said Monday, “Testing these kits is a public safety issue that must be addressed; and in this upcoming legislative session, I will work with lawmakers, law enforcement and victims’ advocates to ensure our state crime labs have the resources needed to continue testing unprocessed sexual assault kits.”
A so-called rape kit contains evidence, including DNA samples, collected from the body of a sexual assault victim by investigators trained in medicine. Once processed, the kit can be used in criminal prosecutions.
Broward, Palm Beach, Miami-Dade and Pinellas counties all use county-run laboratories for rape kit testing. Indian River County has a regional lab. Florida’s other counties send evidence to the state’s crime lab system.
Rep. Janet Cruz, D-Tampa, filed a bill in September requiring police to adopt new polices that ensure rape kits are tested within 12 months of a crime.
But the demands on labs has grown with “increased awareness of the potential of DNA evidence to exonerate the falsely accused or to solve cases,” according to the FDLE.
“Law enforcement agencies have an obligation to every crime victim — first and foremost to respond to reports of criminal activity and to handle the investigation and evidence collection and submission in a professional and timely manner,” the FDLE said. “They also have an obligation to communicate with victims and be responsive regarding case status and any forensic results which might provide value to the investigation.”
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