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Albuquerque mayor wants police to clear rape kit backlog

January 17, 2018

Albuquerque Mayor Tim Keller, left, discusses the city's backlog of untested evidence kits from sexual assault investigations at a news conference in Albuquerque, N.M., on Wednesday, Jan. 17, 2018. Keller, who took office last month, has signed an executive order requiring police to develop a plan by mid-March to clear the city's backlog of several thousand rape evidence kits. (AP Photo/Mary Hudetz).

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — Albuquerque Mayor Tim Keller has given police two months to develop a plan to clear the city’s backlog of untested rape kits, saying he expects doing so will help in solving more sexual assault cases and identifying assailants.

The mayor signed an executive order Wednesday calling upon police and the Albuquerque Sexual Assault Evidence Response Team to present a plan by mid-March that specifies the funding needed to process about 4,000 evidence kits in the city’s crime lab. They have remained untested despite an audit more than a year ago detailing the scope of the problem.

“We need to actually finish the job and end the backlog,” said Keller, who left his post as state auditor and took office as mayor last month. “We are addressing this with urgency.”

As auditor, his office issued reports underscoring the extent of New Mexico’s backlog, finding there were more than 5,400 untested evidence kits from sexual assaults statewide. That total gave New Mexico — home to roughly 2 million people — the unwelcome distinction of having more untested kits per capita than any other state.

Nearly seventy-five percent of the kits are in an Albuquerque crime lab, with Keller’s staff noting the city’s backlog has only grown since his report as auditor was released. The audit found that some of the reasons kits went untested included a lack of training and equipment for law enforcement.

It also found attitudes toward victims were a contributing factor. A fifth of the kits reviewed in the statewide audit went untested because of a perceived lack of credibility on the part of the victim.

In recent years, backlogs of untested rape kits have emerged nationwide as a growing problem among police departments, spurring some to begin addressing the issue. At a news conference, Keller noted that in other cities, such as Detroit and Cleveland, processing the kits has led to numerous investigative leads.

Cleveland, for example, tested some 2,300 kits, yielding 968 leads, he said.

“Make no mistake about it. This is law enforcement,” he said. “This is getting criminals off our streets.”

He said he expects a plan to test the kits sent to the crime lab could cost about $4 million — a preliminary ballpark figure that doesn’t account for costs of setting up a plan to prevent future backlogs, which his order also requires.

Often the size of a shoe box, evidence kits from sexual assault investigations hold DNA samplings secured from medical exams conducted after an attack. The DNA is then supposed to be entered into the FBI’s Combined DNA Index System.

Testing a single kit can take more than 40 hours, and cost at least $600 to $1,000, said Connie Monahan, with the New Mexico Coalition of Sexual Assault Programs.

She said Albuquerque has lacked adequate staffing in its crime lab to tackle the backlog. The city has nine analysts, while the state has about a dozen.

“That’s a real good measurement of the attention the state has given,” she said.

And it’s also an indicator of where Albuquerque needs to step up, she said.

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