The Washington State Patrol Crime Lab is scrambling to handle an influx of rape kits prompted by a new state law that took effect last July.
But even with staffing increases, lab managers said they won't be able to chip away at a statewide backlog of thousands of untested rape kits—until more money is found.
The new law requires police departments to submit every rape kit for testing within 30 days of collection. That means a lot of extra work for the already busy crime lab.
"We're definitely seeing an impact we have five DNA labs across the state, looking across the division for all 5 labs we've seen about an 86 percent increase," said Jean Johnston, CODIS manager for the Washington State Patrol Crime Lab. (CODIS is the Combined DNA Index System, a national crime solving database of DNA.)
Johnston said that the state's five DNA labs typically test rape kits in batches to maximize efficiency; testing just one batch can take a week.
The legislature provided the lab with an additional $2.75 million to offset the increased workload, but that's less than half what the State Patrol requested.
Johnston said that money is enough to hire seven additional scientists to handle the influx of newly collected rape kits, but not enough to address the backlog of old rape kits sitting in evidence lockers all over the state.
She said the lab doesn't have sufficient staff to handle the estimated 5,000 to 6,000 untested rape kits held by police agencies statewide.
"These go back for a decade or more, so we really don't have the staff to do that. We're trying to keep our head above water on the current incoming cases," Johnston said.
Johnston said it could take two years to complete the hiring of new scientists and get them trained. That means the backlog of untested rape kits could get worse before it gets better.
Last January, months before the new law took effect, Seattle Police Chief Kathleen O'Toole announced a major policy change: where SPD had been submitting roughly one out of every 5 rape kits for testing, detectives would now be submitting all of them. That included 1,276 untested kits that had been in storage, some more than a decade old.
Capt. Deanna Nollette, head of the Special Victims Unit for the Seattle Police Department, said she and others at SPD consulted with the state crime lab before changing the department's policy. She said SPD was assured that the lab could handle the increased workload. But after testing just a few dozen of SPD's older rape kits, the crime lab said no more.
"I had an inkling that perhaps once the kits started going in that there would be some issues, but I was caught by surprise that there was kind of a bright line set of when the law passed, which left a lot of our cases that we'd already sent over in limbo," Nollette said.
Nollette said she was notified that all rape kits received by the crime lab before the new law took effect in July were effectively put on hold. She said out of 767 requests, the lab tested 65 rape kits. Results on two of the kits were passed along to detectives for further investigation.
While that sounds like a setback, state Rep. Tina Orwall (D-Des Moines), who sponsored the rape kit legislation, said the crime lab did the right thing.
"I actually think it was a good idea to send them back. We really are trying to have our state lab focus currently on the new kits moving forward and we're going to need different strategies for the older kits," Orwall said.
Cities in other states have cleared backlogs by going after corporate donations and federal grants to pay for testing in private labs. Orwall said she was hoping SPD would do the same when it changed its policy last January. But to date that hasn't happened.
"I know there will be federal dollars available next year, and I hope they (SPD) will help us out, it would be great if they applied for a grant or partnered with helping other jurisdictions but we also need their help securing these private funds as well. So we need them. We need them to be heroes and come to the table and work with us," Orwall said.
Captain Nollette said that the police department is committed to doing whatever it takes to get the backlog cleared and tested but "what that's going to look like moving forward, I don't know."
Nollette and Orwall are serving on a state task force made up of police, prosecutors, lawmakers, rape victims and victims' advocates. The goal of the task force is to brainstorm ways to get Washington's backlog of old rape kits tested and to provide a system for tracking rape kits, so that victims are aware of what's happening every step of the way. In the past many victims were unaware their rape kits were never tested.
Orwall said the law requiring all rape kits be tested going forward is a big win, but she won't be satisfied until every victim gets answers.
"You know, it's such a personal violation and the stories are just heart wrenching and when I talk to victims it may be twenty years but they are still not feeling safe, They still feel pain, so I think that there are a lot of people quietly suffering who deserve justice," Orwall said.
Justice that could be unlocked by opening a box of evidence that was collected during an invasive exam, only to be sealed and left on a shelf.
Orwall told KING 5 she intends to go back to the legislature in the upcoming session to request additional funding for rape kit testing--money that would be used to test about 25 percent of the older rape kits. Orwall is also encouraging smaller police departments to take advantage of an FBI program in which batches of 30 untested rape kits can be submitted for testing by a private lab.