A decades-old backlog of more than 7,000 untested rape kits has been been nearly cleared by the Los Angeles Police Department, but 1,000 more DNA samples collected since 2008 have piled up and will take until July to analyze, officials said Friday.
Just 35 rape kits from the original backlog remain to be tested, and officials said they expect those to be completed by February, four months ahead of schedule.
"The shame that this brought to the city was untenable," said Police Chief Charlie Beck, who led a task force assigned to clear up the backlog before he was promoted last year to head the department.
"If we cannot protect victims, if we cannot provide justice to those who were promised justice, then what are we?"
A 2008 audit by the city controller found that the LAPD had more than 7,000 untested rape kits stored on its freezer shelves, with more than 200 past the statute of limitations.
The city contracted with outside laboratories to analyze the initial rape kits - testing the suspect's semen, hair, blood and other biological evidence - which are then returned to the LAPD for review.
However, the LAPD has received more than 2,500 rape kits since the department began tackling the original backlog in December 2008. About 1,000 remain untested, a secondary backlog that officials hope to clear by July.
Nevertheless, officials say they're now able to process rape kits within 60 days of receiving a case.
That's good news for the victims and general public, said Kathy Adams, clinical director of the Center for Assault Treatment Services at Northridge Hospital Medical Center.
"With the backlog out of the way and completed, I would imagine that crime analysts have more time to spend on the current kits, which would mean faster turnaround and more matches," Adams said. "The end result would be getting perpetrators off the street and preventing more victims."
The LAPD's efforts have been hampered by a federal requirement that any matches made on tests handled by an outside clinic be retested by LAPD staff in order for the evidence to be used in court.
"It's a waste of a lot of resources," said City Councilman Greig Smith, who chairs the Public Safety Committee and has lobbied for a test program that would allow larger states or cities to be exempt from retesting.
Still, he and other officials recognized the headway made in reducing the number of unprocessed kits.
"We recognize there's still a lot more work to be accomplished, but we are proud of the progress that has been made," Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa said Friday during an award ceremony at the California Forensic Science Institute at California State University, Los Angeles, honoring Beck for his efforts.
"Behind every untested kit is a victim, is a woman or a child, or someone who may not have a face in front of that kit, but certainly has a story to tell," he said.
Villaraigosa has pledged to increase the number of criminalists and funding to outsource testing of the kits. The council last January approved hiring 10 LAPD technicians and voted to spend $377,000 on outside firms to help process the backlog.
Backlog testing returned 153 matches in October, including 11 unidentified suspects who were linked to multiple victims, according to Yvette Sanchez-Owens, a police administrator. Advances in technology have also enabled technicians to go back and make hits on cold cases.
In some instances, suspects who were already incarcerated were linked to sexual assaults as a result of working through the backlog, said Michele Daniels, head deputy of the Sexual Crimes Division of the Los Angeles County District Attorney's Office.
"Before we got these results, you had victims who had been assaulted and had no idea what had happened, if there were even any results," Daniels said.