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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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News >  Crime/Public Safety

Washington state has nearly 6,500 untested sexual assault kits sitting in storage. The state AG says 1,340 of them are from Spokane County.

Vials of evidence in a sexual assault case are labeled and sorted in the biology lab at the Houston Forensic Science Center in Houston on Thursday, April 2, 2015. (Pat Sullivan / AP)
Vials of evidence in a sexual assault case are labeled and sorted in the biology lab at the Houston Forensic Science Center in Houston on Thursday, April 2, 2015. (Pat Sullivan / AP)

Of the nearly 6,500 sexual assault kits collecting dust in law-enforcement storage facilities across the state, Spokane County lays claim to 20 percent, according to an inventory sheet released by the office of Washington state Attorney General Bob Ferguson.

Ferguson announced the number of kits this week after receiving inventory information from 208 agencies – including from Spokane-area’s three law enforcement entities – as it awaits federal grant money to send the remaining inventory to the Washington State Patrol crime lab. The 6,460 kits, some of which are more than three decades old, have not been submitted for DNA testing.

“Sexual assault survivors deserve justice,” Ferguson said in a news release. “Each sexual assault kit tells a story from a survivor that must be heard.”

Despite being less than half the population of Seattle, Spokane led the state in untested kits, at 884, compared to zero in Seattle. The Spokane County Sheriff’s Office had 268, and Spokane Valley police, which contracts with the sheriff’s office, had 188, putting a total number at 1,340. The second-highest law enforcement agency included in the list was the Pierce County Sheriff’s Office, at 717. Tacoma, the county’s largest city, had 417.

Assistant Police Chief Justin Lundgren said since 2015, when the attorney general’s inventory list was generated, the department has made significant headway in working through the backlog. Because of a number of employees being out for the day, he couldn’t immediately determine what the department’s inventory numbers were Friday afternoon.

“What we’ve done since then is we’ve prioritized and organized all of the cases we had listed being in inventory that were not tested,” he said. “We submit a report to the state crime lab for each of those kits. And as they have capacity at the lab, we send batches of those kits to the lab.”

Lundgren said of the hundreds of kits untested, a significant portion were decades old, and had already been tested before modern advancements in DNA testing. He said the department kits dated back into the 1980s.

There are many reasons why a kit may not be submitted to the lab, he said, first being if testing a kit wouldn’t help the prosecution in the case. Specifically, if the suspect and the victim both reported that sexual contact occurred, with the victim saying it was nonconsensual and the suspect saying it was consensual.

“There is no question as to the identity of the suspect there,” he said.

Another reason being if the victim requests police not to move forward with the crime. According to the Department of Justice statistics, seven out of 10 sexual assaults go unreported. Out of 1,000 reported rapes, only seven will will lead to a felony conviction.

Spokane County Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich, meanwhile, challenged the accuracy of the attorney general’s inventory numbers, saying his office and Spokane Valley police didn’t have any untested kits sitting in storage. He added they were “one of the few agencies that has submitted everything.”

“We can tell you that we have no backlogged cases as far as things submitted to the state,” he said. “Everything we have is submitted. We don’t know if they’ve processed them or not.”

Autumn Reed, president of the local chapter of NOW, said in a statement that Spokane’s untested sexual assault kits have been a known problem throughout the community for at least a year, but she pointed to a lack of staffing and funding at Washington’s two crime labs, not at the Spokane Police Department, for the backlog.

She said the two labs in the state were “understaffed and the techs underpaid,” with qualified workers who move out of state, where they’re likely to receive a higher salary.

“How we got to a maddening amount of untested kits in Spokane and Spokane County, I cannot say, but the Spokane Police Department is not currently the bottleneck for our community,” she wrote. “When the state crime lab calls for kits, the SPD is ready to send them.”

She said the people most affected by the backlog are survivors – a disproportionate number of which are people of color, according to the National Crime Victimization Survey. The Indian Law Resource center reported more than 4 in 5 American Indian and Alaska Native women have experienced violence, and more than 1 in 2 have experienced sexual violence.

Sexual assault kits are a collection of evidence gathered from survivors by trained medical professional, typically by a trained sexual assault nurse. In Washington, kits are sent to the WSP crime lab for testing.

In 2015, the Washington Legislature approved funding to help reduce the backlog. Led by Rep. Tina Orwall, D-Des Moines, the new law also required all sexual assault kits to be submitted for testing. Previously, law enforcement agencies could use their discretion on deciding what to submit on a case-by-case basis.

According to WSP, the state has already submitted 3,300 backlogged kits using Legislature funding. Of those, about 1,700 kits have been tested and an additional 1,100 are in the process of being tested, the attorney general’s office said in a news release.

Those totals do not include the 6,460 unsubmitted kits inventoried and held by local law enforcement.

Ferguson’s office was awarded a $3 million federal grant from the U.S. Department of Justice in October 2017 to pay for testing the untested kits. The office said it’s so far received a quarter of the grant.

To help with testing more kits, the crime lab said it would be outsourcing to a private lab, where it would then peer review all of the evidence tested.

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