Update: The Austin City Council has approved a $3.6 million, six-year contract with Dallas County to send the evidence there for testing.
Original Post:Austin City Council members today will consider contracting with a Dallas County forensic lab to process evidence in at least 600 sexual assault cases. The contract, funded with money out of the Austin Police Department budget, totals $1.6 million for a 12-month period with the option to extend.
“This is going to be the most important step in getting this agreement in place so we can start sending out the kits to be examined,” APD Chief of Staff Brian Manley told Council members Tuesday.
Although advocates for survivors of sexual assault say the contract is nothing to sniff at, some are concerned that the way it’s written is too vague and that the timeline for processing the evidence is unclear.
“It doesn’t give us what we were promised,” said Ana DeFrates, who serves on the city’s Commission for Women, “and that is the assurance that sexual assault evidence would be cleared; the backlog would be taken care of.”
During budget conversations in September, APD Chief Art Acevedo assured Council members that his department would locate the funds to clear up the DNA backlog.
Council Member Greg Casar questioned Manley on Tuesday about the vagueness of the contract.
“We wrote the agreement not limiting ourselves to that (sexual assault evidence) on the off-chance we had a serial offender in a different type crime or maybe a homicide that needed immediate processing,” said Manley. “We wanted to have the ability to do that, but that would be the exception.”
This is not the first city contract with an outside lab aimed at whittling down APD’s backlog of DNA evidence. Using grants received from the New York County District Attorney’s Office, APD paid $1.18 million back in April to a lab in Salt Lake City, Utah, to test roughly 2,000 sexual assault kits that had been waiting to be processed for at least a year.
But then the closure of APD’s local DNA lab in June, following an audit from the Texas Forensic Science Commission, compounded concerns over the backlog. Officials say the lab should reopen in mid-2017.
While staff has said the $1.6 million contract with the Dallas lab is more than enough to cover the cost of processing evidence in the current 600-some cases – 484 of which include a rape kit (cost per kit at this lab ranges from $1,190 to $2,215) – APD is unable to say how quickly the kits can be tested. It’s a concern, said Casar.
“The greater concern is if there is not sufficient capacity at the Dallas County lab for processing all of these kits and processing them all swiftly, then we need to start coming up with other options and more solutions for ensuring we test every single kit as quickly and accurately as possible,” said Casar.
This and the fact that the local lab remains shuttered leaves those who work with sexual assault survivors in a tough place.
“It doesn’t feel OK for us to not be able to tell a survivor how long this process will take,” said Coni Stogner, vice president of prevention and community services at the SAFE Alliance. “Frequently they ask questions: ‘What will this process look like? What will the timeline be? When might I see justice?’ And in our current system, we don’t have a good answer. We don’t have an answer at all, because things are in such flux right now.”
Stogner said this waiting period is the perfect time to set local standards for how promptly evidence should be processed. When the local lab reopens, said Stogner, there will be new expectations.
“That way we set it up in an efficient and effective manner from the get-go, as opposed to trying to circle back and fix things later,” said Stogner. “All of that would ultimately result in faster justice for survivors and getting perpetrators off the street and increased safety for our community.”
This story was produced as part of KUT's reporting partnership with the Austin Monitor.