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Wednesday, September 7, 2016 by Elizabeth Pagano

Public Safety Commission calls for $5.6M to clear DNA backlog

The Public Safety Commission upped the ante Tuesday, calling for an additional $5.6 million to tackle a backlog of DNA cases that continue to accumulate while the city’s lab remains shuttered.

With a week left to pass the city’s budget, City Council is already considering an additional $1.9 million to hire seven analysts and outsource DNA testing. Council Member Greg Casar vowed to find that funding Thursday, after lengthy, sometimes-emotional testimony from Austinites who stressed its urgency.

That urgency was also the focus of the latest Public Safety Commission meeting, where commissioners took a close look at why the lab had been closed and asked what it would take to address the current backlog and, perhaps, address some larger problems about how sexual assault investigations are handled by the city.

Commissioners voted unanimously in favor of a resolution calling for $5.6 million to clear the backlog of cases, based on an estimate from the Austin Police Department for the cost of outsourcing cases while the lab is closed. They also asked for annual funding of $1.4 million for additional staff and a requirement that DNA be tested within four weeks or sent to an outside lab. Based on testimony from former commissioner and current defense attorney Kent Anschutz, they also raised the question of whether the lab's operation as part of the police department was, in fact, a best practice.

Assistant Police Chief Troy Gay told the commission that APD hopes the DNA lab will be fully functional sometime between February and spring 2017. At the moment, he explained, it brings in about 90 cases per month and has a backlog of “a little over 1,500 cases.” Of those, about 45 percent – or 675 cases – have a sexual assault component.

Amanda Lewis, who serves on the city's Commission for Women, explained that, at the time the lab was closed, it was already looking at an existing 3,000-case backlog that will be cleared through a separate grant. “From what I understand,” she said, “it’s taken tremendous community input and tremendous community support to bring these (budget recommendations) forward in the first place.”

Emily LeBlanc, SAFE alliance senior director of community advocacy, told the commission that the lab's closure is a symptom of a bigger problem.

“We know only 9 percent of survivors come forward to report the crime, and now we have to tell them we’re not sure anything is going to happen as a result. Certainly, that is made worse by the closing of the lab, but I just want to highlight that is indicative of how the whole system has treated sexual assault and sexual assault survivors, and how we treat them in the system currently.”

Citing Travis County District Court records, she noted that although about 700 adults report sexual assault every year, last year only 12 cases resulted in convictions.

In addition to passing a resolution with recommendations to Council, commissioners also plan to address the big picture of how the city handles sexual assault cases at a future meeting. Commissioner Ed Scruggs said the idea of restructuring the current process “sounds unavoidable” and pushed for an investigation into what led to the closing of the lab.

“When you shut down, you have to write new procedures, you have to fix equipment. … It’s a long, drawn-out process,” said Scruggs. “I think the people of Austin deserve answers about how this happened.”

Photo by University of Michigan School of Natural Resources & Environment made available thorough a Creative Commons license.

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Public Safety Commission: The Public Safety Commission is a City Council advisory body charged with oversight of budgetary and policy matters concerning public safety These include matters related to the Austin Police Department, the Austin Fire Department, and the Austin/Travis County Emergency Medical Services Department."

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