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APD still years away from clearing DNA backlog

Tuesday, February 7, 2017 by Cate Malek

Austin’s Public Safety Commission gave mixed reviews to the Austin Police Department’s attempts to recover from the shutdown of its DNA lab and its backlog of thousands of untested rape kits.

At its meeting on Monday, the commission responded favorably to the APD’s handling of a freezer malfunction that could have jeopardized DNA evidence from various types of crimes. But commissioners questioned APD representatives sharply on whether they were responding to the rape kit backlog with enough urgency and whether they had made any progress in determining the reason for the DNA lab’s failures.

“This will cost millions of dollars that did not need to be spent,” said Commissioner Kim Rossmo. “There must be some idea, given the gravity of this, what went wrong.”

The APD decided to shut down its DNA lab last June after an audit found a series of problems with its testing practices. In December, it announced that the problems were so deep-seated that it would not be reopening the lab and outsourced the testing of its DNA evidence to other labs around the country.

At Monday’s meeting, APD announced that it has made some progress in finding labs to test its remaining backlog of over 3,200 DNA kits from sexual assaults. The Southwestern Institute of Forensic Sciences in Dallas County had been testing Austin’s rape kits but is now at capacity. But APD is finalizing a contract to send approximately 60 kits a month to Signature Science in Austin.

Around 25 new rape kits come in every month in Travis County, according to Commander Michael Eveleth. But even with this new contract, he estimates that it will take several years to clear the backlog.

According to some commissioners, this was not fast enough. They also questioned the time it would take to hire a consulting firm to give a final answer on why the lab failed in the first place.

“I want to smell, taste, see some kind of urgency,” said Commissioner Michael Levy. He especially took issue with predictions that the final audit of the lab might not be completed until 2020.

But commissioners did have some praise for APD. After a detailed rundown of what caused a freezer that contained thousands of DNA samples to malfunction, commissioners said the APD had handled the situation professionally.

Although the freezer failure had raised significant concern, it turned out that most of the DNA evidence had already been tested and none of it had been damaged by the failure, Eveleth said. The APD has increased its monitoring of the freezer from weekly to every day as well as installed more fail-safes. Still, commissioners pointed out that APD should have notified stakeholders about the potentially compromised evidence.

“There was something of a tempest in a teapot here,” said Commissioner Preston Tyree. “I’m not terribly concerned about the failure of this freezer because it didn’t impact the evidence.”

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