Massachusetts law enforcement agencies say they have mostly eliminated delays in testing DNA evidence collected in rape cases, in contrast with other parts of the country, where hundreds of thousands of sexual assault evidence kits have gone untested.
A state audit of 75 municipal police departments found that 83 percent had no untested rape kits as of a year ago. And several of the state’s biggest police departments say that they promptly test their rape kits and currently have no backlogs.
“It sends a really important message to victims that there’s a commitment on the part of the Commonwealth to collect and analyze this data so that perpetrators can be held accountable,” said Toni K. Troop, director of communications at Jane Doe Inc., a statewide coalition against sexual assault.
On Thursday, Vice President Joseph Biden and Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus R. Vance, Jr. announced a combined $79 million in grants to end the backlog of kits on police agency shelves across the country. The grants will be targeted to jurisdictions with the biggest backlogs and used to process an estimated 70,000 kits.
“For most survivors, seeing their rapists brought to justice, and knowing that they will not return, brings peace of mind and a sense of closure,” said Biden in a statement. “The grants we’re announcing today to reduce the national rape kit backlog will bring that sense of closure and safety to victims while improving community safety.”
Evidence collection in sexual assault cases typically takes several hours. Victims are photographed, asked to undress, prodded and probed. DNA evidence is swabbed and scraped from their bodies.
Victims “go through that for this evidence to be collected. They are doing everything that society asks of them. Then, to have this kit sit on the shelf and not be handled sends a bad message to them,” Ilse Knecht, a policy expert at the Joyful Heart Foundation, a national sexual assault victims advocacy group, said in a telephone interview.
Critics have long complained that too many evidence kits are never tested or take far too long to be analyzed, potentially crippling efforts to catch rapists and other sexual predators. USA Today reported in July that at least 70,000 kits collected by 1,000 law enforcement agencies around the country hadn’t been sent to crime labs. Victim advocates suspect there are thousands more at other police departments.
Massachusetts had its own problems with testing sexual assault kits as recently as 2007, when the Globe reported that the state crime lab alone had 4,000 rape kits from as far back as 1989 that were never opened. And in 2013, a State Senate report noted that Boston police took as long as five months to process the kits because of staffing shortages.
But both the state crime lab and Boston police have since addressed those problems, officials said.
In early August, the state crime lab had 172 kits that had been submitted and were waiting to be analyzed, said David Procopio, a spokesman for the State Police, the agency that operates the lab..
The state crime lab, which also processes evidence from many municipal departments, has received federal DNA backlog reduction funds that were used to evaluate the lab’s DNA examination processes. Using the findings of this evaluation, the lab redesigned its workflow, which allowed it to provide more timely DNA results.
“In transforming the way they process DNA evidence, the State Police have dramatically reduced the amount of time it takes to turn around evidence that could become the key to a prosecution or even prevent other crimes from occurring,” said Felix Browne, spokesman for the state Executive Office of Public Safety and Security, in an e-mail.
The Boston Police Department, which processes its own kits, has never had a backlog of kits, said Lieutenant Detective Michael McCarthy, a spokesman for the department.
Unlike many law enforcement agencies, the department tests every kit within two weeks, said McCarthy. Kits that require additional DNA testing are processed within 12 weeks.
According to the state audit published in July, 75 local departments had a total of 76 kits in their possession that had not been tested as of September 2014. The 75 departments accounted for only a portion of the state’s approximately 350 police agencies.
Knecht, whose foundation runs the national “End the Backlog” campaign, criticized the Massachusetts audit results for not being comprehensive. She pointed to Kentucky, which she said had polled every police agency.
“Kentucky is getting 100 percent compliance,” said Knecht. “The Massachusetts numbers that came out seemed like something was missing.”
The Globe reached out to the Massachusetts State Police and larger municipal police departments to determine the number of unprocessed kits they had in their possession.
The Worcester, Lowell, Lynn, New Bedford, Quincy, and Cambridge departments said that they did not have backlogs.
“I am proud to state that our department is at the very forefront when it comes to testing rape kits,” said Worcester Police Lieutenant David Grady, who heads his department’s crime scene unit, in an e-mail.
The Springfield and Brockton police departments did not respond to the Globe’s requests for information.
Despite the positive news coming out of some of the larger departments in the state, Knecht cautioned that there may still be problems.
Not every department has a policy requiring that kits be tested, said Knecht. Some only test kits based on officer discretion.
“In my experience, it’s possible there are untested kits on the shelves,” she said.Catherine Cloutier can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter at @cmcloutier. Todd Wallack can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @TWallack.