April 29, 2011

On April 27, 2011, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa announced the elimination of the city's backlog of 6,132 untested sexual assault evidence kits, or "rape kits," collected through December 2008. This important announcement came two years after Human Rights Watch released its 2009 report Testing Justice, which was instrumental in bringing this disturbing issue of the rape kit backlog in Los Angeles to the public's attention. Since the release of the report, follow-up advocacy conducted by Human Rights Watch in partnership with local government leaders and advocates for the rights of rape survivors in Los Angeles has been ongoing.

In 2009, Los Angeles County had the largest known rape kit backlog in the United States. At that time, some 12,000 rape kits-which potentially contained DNA and other evidence collected from rape victims' bodies and clothes immediately after the crime-were sitting in police storage facilities in the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD), the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department, and 47 independent police departments in Los Angeles County. The city of Los Angeles held 6,132 of the untested kits counted in 2009, which it refers to as its pre-December 2008 "historical backlog." As of April 27, the city reported that it has reduced that backlog to zero. The uploading of DNA samples from the newly tested rape kits  has so far yielded 753 hits in the FBI's national DNA database CODIS.

The testing of rape kits can identify assailants, confirm a suspect's contact with a victim, corroborate the victim's account of the sexual assault, and exonerate innocent defendants.  The untested rape kits in Los Angeles represented lost justice for the victims, who reported their rape to the police and consented to the four- to six-hour rape kit collection process. Not testing rape kits may also be symptomatic of a broader problem of failing to investigate seriously complaints of sexual assault.  Read the summary and recommendations to the report here.

Questions remain as to whether the LAPD will be able to avoid a subsequent backlog, especially in light of budgetary woes in Los Angeles and throughout the state of California, although the department has stated it is currently working to test and upload to CODIS the rape kits that have been collected and not yet tested since December 2008. The LAPD admits it is behind with these kits and hopes to be current sometime this summer. Nevertheless, the clearance of the pre-December 2008 backlog, and promises and dedication from the city council, mayor's office, and police department to never have a backlog in the future, are positive commitments by the city of Los Angeles to the rights of rape survivors.