The Austin Police Department continues to sort through its backlog of DNA kits. Many of which of which are sex assault cases that need to be tested.
Those kits were left in limbo A.P.D. closed its lab in March after a report from the Texas Forensic Science Commission showed it wasn't up to standards. The report indicated that samples were not only mishandled but the technology used in the lab was out of date.
On Monday, A.P.D. Assistant Chief Troy Gay gave an update to Austin’s Public Safety Commission.
During that update, he told members on the commission that a freezer in the lab broke just before the lab was closed. And he said A.P.D. must now analyze all of the evidence in the freezer to see if any of it was compromised. He because the freezer's software malfunctioned, the alarm didn't go off, potentially damaging hundreds of DNA samples.
Chief Gay also gave an update on the roughly 3000 untested DNA samples that have been sitting in A.P.D.’s evidence storage, some of them dating back to the 1990s. A.P.D. was awarded a grant towards testing those kits. 500 of them, Gay says have already been sent to the private lab, Sorenson for testing. He says A.P.D. will continue to send them in batches of 500 and that it could take between 2-3 months to test each batch.
An update on A.P.D.’s backlog of DNA kits was also on the Commission’s agenda. According to data provided by the Austin Police Department, as of September, there were 599 pending sexual assault cases that need DNA processing, 482 of those include a rape kit.
In November, the Austin City Council voted to approve a $3.6 million dollar six year contract with Southwestern Institute of Forensic Sciences in Dallas, to have the backlog of kits tested there. Gay says they will send 100 kits every two weeks, “We are going to continue to send cases, we are just trying to get the majority of our sexual assault kits which has been a priority for us, for our council, for our community, get those in,” he says adding, “and then we'll be sending priority cases for potentially other types of cases to S.W.I.F.S. well.” Gay says they will be sending new cases to the Dallas lab too.
“They aren't providing us a clear timeline but their past performance measures have been about 105 days from start to finish on a case,” he says adding, “so we really believe that they will not only be able to meet, but exceed the time we were taking to push our cases forward.”
When the Austin Police Department’s lab shuttered, they sent 189 cases to The D.P.S. for testing. But on Monday, Gay says because of The D.P.S.’ own backlog, those cases will now be sent to S.W.I.F.S.
Chief Gay adds that the Travis County DA’s Office needs 20 kits processed immediately, those will be sent to The D.P.S. lab as high priority.
The Austin Police Department is also hiring two independent experts. One will outline specifics about what went wrong in their DNA lab. “I hope there aren't any big surprises but we do want to get to the bottom of what took place,” he says.
The other, Gay says, will determine the “path forward.” That could mean an internal crime lab within the Austin Police Department, a lab that’s run by Travis County, or it could even be rolled up into The D.P.S.’ lab,
“I don’t think we have a position statement,” says Gay, adding, “but I do believe our department wants the best lab. We want the best lab for our community to be able to provide them a level of service that they deserve. Whether that’s at our department, whether it is somewhere else, I think that is for the independent consultant to come in and provide us a best practice.”
Gay says the Austin Police Department is hoping to present the two candidates to the Austin City Council by their December 15 meeting or their December 26 meeting. The Austin Police Department had said they would re-open a re-tooled DNA lab for the Department in early 2017. Gay says while that is still a goal, a final decision hasn’t been made yet.