Local law enforcement was among 53 agencies across the state who will see expanded storage for sexual assault evidence.
Attorney General Bob Ferguson announced that his office will provide funding for refrigeration units to store evidence from sexual assault investigations.
Ferguson is providing the new units as part of his Sexual Assault Kit Initiative (SAKI) — a campaign to improve Washington’s response to sexual assault and end the state’s rape kit backlog.
According to the Attorney General’s Office, it is allocating $177,204.73 of its federal SAKI grant funding to local law enforcement for the purpose of purchasing these refrigeration units to help ensure that sexual assault evidence, including evidence that needs to be refrigerated, does not expire due to lack of capacity.
The Attorney General’s Office says they heard from local law enforcement that this is a major need.
“More storage means more evidence can be tested, and more crimes can be solved,” Ferguson said. “These resources will bring justice to survivors.”
This increased storage capacity will help law enforcement agencies comply with a 2020 law, House Bill 2318, that requires “unreported” sexual assault evidence to be stored for at least 20 years. This includes a sexual assault kit and all associated evidence for an assault that a victim has not yet reported to law enforcement. An unreported sexual assault kit is taken at a hospital and stored by law enforcement, should a victim choose to file a report. Evidence from reported assaults must be stored for 100 years.
In partnership with the Washington Association of Sheriffs & Police Chiefs, the SAKI team asked local law enforcement agencies to determine how much new cold storage they need. Fifty-three of the 260 agencies reported that they will need more storage and will be receiving reimbursement from the SAKI grant. Forty-one agencies will receive funding in this first round, and another 12 agencies will receive funding in an upcoming second round.
Full list of agencies receiving new units;
Following the passage of the 2020 law, the Attorney General’s Office searched for innovative ways to support law enforcement, particularly smaller agencies that might otherwise struggle to purchase the new equipment.
The Attorney General’s SAKI team tells KXRO they found a variety of ways to save on projects, including repurposing travel savings from the COVID-19 pandemic, in order to provide this funding from the agency’s federal SAKI grant to support law enforcement.
A sexual assault kit is a collection of evidence gathered from a survivor by a medical professional, usually a specially trained sexual assault nurse examiner. A crime lab then tests the evidence for DNA that could help law enforcement find a perpetrator.
There are two types of sexual assault kit backlogs in Washington and across the country. The first is the “unsubmitted” sexual assault kit backlog, which consists of kits that sit in a law enforcement evidence storage facility because a DNA analysis was never requested.
The second type of backlog occurs in crime lab facilities, when sexual assault kits have been submitted to the lab, but have not yet been tested.
The State of Washington has made progress on processing its backlog of sexual assault kits over the past several years, but additional work remains. In 2015, led by Rep. Tina Orwall, D-Des Moines, the Legislature gave funds to the Washington State Patrol Crime Lab to reduce the backlog. In Washington state, the State Patrol Crime Lab oversees the testing of all of the state’s DNA evidence.
In 2017, the Attorney General’s Office won its first $3 million SAKI grant from the U.S. Department of Justice to address the backlog of sexual assault kits. The office has designated half of the total $3 million grant to pay for testing backlogged kits, the maximum amount allowed under the grant. The office won another $2.5 million in SAKI grant funding in 2019.
In 2019, the Legislature, again led by Rep. Orwall, authorized funding for the construction of a high throughput DNA lab in Vancouver that, when completed, will allow the Crime Lab to process a higher volume of DNA cases at quicker rates.
Thanks to these efforts, to date, the Crime Lab has tested 5,278 backlogged kits, leading to 1,315 DNA matches in CODIS, the national DNA database.
Testing backlogged kits has already provided new information for cold cases. In one case, a suspect was charged with child rape more than 10 years after the crime, thanks to the results of a backlogged rape kit.
Once the kits are tested, local law enforcement can use DNA to reopen cold cases. The AGO can offer investigative assistance to local law enforcement agencies. In Washington state, the Attorney General only has authority to initiate criminal investigations unless it receives and accepts a referral from a county prosecuting attorney or the governor. However, the AGO can assist local law enforcement with their investigations if a law enforcement agency requests it.
Read more about the SAKI program here.