San Diego County Backlog lab
Contents of a typical rape kit. Photo credit:

A day after District Attorney Summer Stephen criticized the San Diego Police Department for employing incomplete testing of DNA evidence in some unsolved rape cases, Chief David Nisleit announced Wednesday that his agency would thoroughly analyze all such materials from now on.

On Tuesday, Stephen told Voice of San Diego — which revealed the contested investigative policy last week in an in-depth investigative story — that the SDPD should not have performed incomplete examinations of dozens of rape kits while working through a decades-long backlog of open sex-assault cases.

“I don’t think that that’s the right thing to do,” the district attorney told VOSD.

Wednesday afternoon, the police chief announced that he had reached the same decision.

“We recognize the community has high expectations for us,” Nisleit said in a prepared statement. “We also hold ourselves to the highest of standards. In order to meet these expectations, we will be working with a private laboratory to ensure all 1,700 historical kits are tested.”

When a sexual assault is reported to law enforcement, nurses collect swabs from different parts of a victim’s body in search of the perpetrator’s genetic material, and file away the DNA samples for testing in the future.

Six months ago, San Diego police began testing only a single swab from dozens of previously untested kits, as opposed to the full set of a half- dozen available in each case, VOSD reported. The procedure was reserved for situations in which the district attorney had declined to prosecute, or when a warrant already had been issued for a suspect’s arrest.

That practice is officially a thing of the past, according to Nisleit.

“Moving forward, the department will test every single kit using a six-swab method,” he said.

According to SDPD officials, about 40 rape kits had been tested in the abbreviated manner. Though the department defended the procedure as appropriate in the relatively rare selected cases, an SDPD crime-lab analyst who spoke on condition of anonymity told Voice of San Diego there was another motivation.

“The reason given was, `We just need to check the box,”‘ the department staffer said. “There was no scientific reason given, not that `This would be more effective.’ There was no indication that this was anything other than a political policy decision.”

The department canceled the policy in August, a day after Voice of San Diego first asked about it, according to the nonprofit news agency.

Stephen said the District Attorney’s Office had not approved of — or even known about — the investigative shortcuts being employed by the SDPD on some of the old rape kits it was reviewing.

“We assume that the testing will be done by proper standards,” she told VOSD. “We don’t get into the technical (aspects), because that’s not our area. We trust that forensic experts will make those decisions correctly … . Mistakes happen, but the key is to not get stuck on ego, to correct and to move forward so we can serve this community.”

Last year, the District Attorney’s Office formalized an agreement with the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department and 11 other police departments in the county — all but the SDPD — to clear the region’s backlog of rape kits by forwarding them to outside laboratories for testing.

Declining to join the effort, the SDPD instead opted to create an internal group to tackle the task. The panel included SDPD staffers, the local county prosecutor in charge of sex crimes and a victims’ rights advocate.

— City News Service