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APD vows to end DNA evidence backlog

Tuesday, September 13, 2016 by Jo Clifton

Austin Police Chief Art Acevedo said Monday that the police department is committed to erasing its backlog of untested DNA evidence, which includes sexual assault kits as well as evidence collected from the scenes of property crimes.

Acevedo told City Council that a $200,000 grant the department had just received would help eliminate that backlog, but he stressed that the department also needs seven new scientists plus one supervisor to make sure that evidence currently being collected does not become a new backlog for the department.

The grant to work on DNA evidence will come from the federal National Institute of Justice, Acevedo said, adding that the department just found out about it last week.

City Council is currently working on next year’s budget, and discussion of the backlog has been part of Council’s conversation.

Acevedo and APD Chief of Staff Brian Manley explained that the department needs an additional $1.4 million to fund the hiring of those new lab employees. A scientist working with major city police chiefs analyzed Austin’s DNA needs and told the department how many new positions it needs in order to prevent a future backlog.

On average, Manley says, each lab technician can handle about 10 cases per month, and a DNA case costs about $4,000.

Acevedo said that many of the untested sexual assault kits were from cases where the defendant confessed to the crime or the district attorney had determined that the case was not prosecutable. However, he said APD now wants to test all of those kits because it could lead to solutions to other crimes.

In response to questions from Council, Acevedo said he could not absolutely guarantee that the backlog would be cleared up by the time the DNA lab reopens because the testing and other procedures are in the hands of a third-party vendor.

Council Member Greg Casar made a special point of pressing Acevedo to make the commitment to finish the tests. On his Facebook page, Casar thanked the survivors of sexual assault and their advocates who recently came before Council asking for the money to test the DNA.

Casar wrote, “I’m certain that this reprioritization of the APD’s resources would not have happened without the testimony of survivors and the many people who came and testified before Council. No one – especially survivors – should have had to come before Council to ask for this basic function of city government. However, I am thankful that we are in the place we are now.”

In addition, Acevedo told Council that 21 jobs currently being performed by police officers will be converted to civilian positions. That means those 21 officers could be out patrolling very quickly after the beginning of the new fiscal year on Oct. 1. The department needs to hire the civilians to do those jobs before putting the officers back into regular patrol work, but the department will not have to spend the time and money training those officers. Three other civilian positions that are part time will become full time, assuming Council approves the budget as staff has presented.

The department has also asked for 12 new officer positions, and city management has agreed that those positions should be listed in the budget but without funding. Acevedo told the Austin Monitor he would do everything he could to find the funding to hire those new officers within his budget.

None of the decisions Council made on Monday are irrevocable, but it seems unlikely that much will change in the APD budget.

Overall, APD has a $402.4 million operating budget. Public safety and the Municipal Court make up 70.1 percent of general fund expenditures. With that in mind, an addition of $381,000 for Austin’s long-awaited sobriety center is a relatively small chunk of money. Travis County is also helping to fund the center.

However, both Acevedo and City Manager Marc Ott expressed their extreme disagreement with the idea of funding the sobriety center through APD. Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo, a longtime advocate for the sobriety center, argued that it would be better to place it under APD than under the Health and Human Services Department.

After the meeting, Tovo told the Monitor that the center will need the support of both departments.

“But as we’ve talked about it over the last several years, it seems like the most immediate savings we’ll see will be in the public safety budget,” Tovo said. “And also a lot of the contact that the individuals will have will be with police. They will be brought there by police officers, and so to me there was a very clear link with the work police already do. So that was one reason why I believed it belonged in the police department budget.”

Despite this preference, however, Tovo said the Health and Human Services Department would be another good place to put the center.

Acevedo had another practical reason for not wanting the sobriety center under APD. When people look at the department’s budget, they see a very large amount of money. But Acevedo says some of that money actually goes for other things. So while it may look like the department is continuing to grow, its growth has not been as great as people may think by looking at the bottom line.

Following the meeting, Ott told the Monitor that the job of deciding which department should direct and fund which program is squarely in management’s purview, not that of City Council.

Photo by Micah Baldwin made available through a Creative Commons license.

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