DA: Office Was Told, But Didn’t Approve of, Lowered Rape Kit Testing Standards
District Attorney Summer Stephan backtracked from comments she made last week that the San Diego Police Department had not informed the district attorney’s office of plans to test some rape kits less thoroughly than others.
She clarified in a statement to VOSD that SDPD did inform a working group that included a representative from her office. But she said she was not personally aware of the change, that her office did not approve it and SDPD proceeded unilaterally.
Stephan, in an email, said she is glad the department has since abandoned the new procedure. The police chief announced last week that all rape kits, including the ones processed with the lower standards, would be sent to an outside lab for full testing.
The district attorney’s office is part of a working group that determines which of SDPD’s rape kits should be analyzed, as part of an effort to clear the city’s backlog of untested kits. In a podcast interview with Voice of San Diego, Stephan had said that she wished SDPD had joined a group of other local law enforcement agencies to send their kits to an outside lab but she reluctantly participated in the working group when SDPD decided to keep the effort in house. The group also includes a sex crimes detective, the crime lab manager and a victim’s advocate.
“SDPD did notify the working group they were changing their approach to testing in certain categories,” Stephan wrote in an email to Voice of San Diego. “While our representative on the working group was informed, SDPD took the action unilaterally and we, as an office, did not approve. At the time, I was not informed of the change.”
When Voice of San Diego revealed last month that SDPD lowered testing standards on roughly 40 rape kits, some of which had previously not been tested because the district attorney’s office declined to prosecute, an SDPD spokesman said the district attorney’s office had approved of the change.
“This plan was vetted through the Sex Crimes Unit, and was approved by the Sex Crimes Division Chief at the District Attorney’s Office,” said Lt. Shawn Takeuchi in a written statement.
Stephan’s latest statement suggests her office did not approve of the change but that at least one member of her staff did, in fact, know about it. During an interview on the Voice of San Diego podcast last week, Stephan said no one in her office knew of the change at all.
“No, we weren’t aware of it,” she said at the time. “But again, the DA’s office, in our role, we advocate for policy and what we’re advocating for is all of these have to be tested. We assume that the testing will be done by proper standards. We don’t get into the technical because that’s not our area. We trust that forensic experts will make those decisions correctly.”
Following Voice of San Diego’s report and Stephan’s reaction, SDPD announced that it would always test rape kits according to its usual, more rigorous standard – in which at least six swabs taken from different parts of a victim’s body would be tested – rather than one swab.
SDPD also announced it would join a DA-led effort that includes the Sheriff’s Department and all other 11 police departments in the county to clear its backlog of untested kits by sending them to a third-party lab for analysis. Roughly 1,700 untested kits from San Diego will now be sent away for testing.
In her follow-up statement, Stephan again said she is glad SDPD has abandoned the lower standards and has joined the countywide testing initiative.
“I’m very glad that SDPD has now committed to testing all of their kits and consider that a credit to Chief Nisleit moving forward to do the right thing,” Stephan wrote.
Cities across the country had built up backlogs of untested rape kits for various reasons. Some kits in San Diego’s possession are three decades old.
Victim’s advocacy groups, however, sparked a national movement to “clear the backlog,” arguing that victims who submit to the invasive collection procedure do so with the expectation that their kit will be tested, and that the collection of DNA samples from testing the kits can help identify serial rapists.
The Department of Justice has since issued guidance to law enforcement agencies to test all kits. California has also passed laws mandating all new kits be tested within 120 days. And the San Diego City Council budgeted $500,000 in 2017 to help SDPD clear its backlog.
San Diego had been a holdout to the emerging test-all-kits mantra, however. Its crime lab manager argued in 2016, as did former Police Chief Shelley Zimmerman a year later, that testing the all kits was not worthwhile.