Extra grant money could help Spokane Police tackle backlog of sexual assault kits

SPOKANE, Wash. — The Spokane Police Department is hoping for more money from a grant to investigate old sexual assault cases. More than 1,500 kits sat on a shelf — untested — prior to 2015.

In 2015, Washington passed a law that would require all old, unsubmitted sexual assault kits to be tested. As of March 2021, Spokane Police has submitted 711 kits for testing, and more than 90 tests have been linked back to someone’s DNA in a national criminal database.

The biggest issue is manpower.

“If we continue this grant, it leaves the sergeant in this position to review these cases,” said Officer John O’Brien with Spokane Police. “That doesn’t take away from each sexual assault detective’s case load that he’s actively working.”

$45,000 was given to the department and Lutheran Community Services from the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs, originally funded by the state. The community services are in charge of contacting or re-contacting the victims to update them on their case.

Jenn Neilsen, Program Director of Lutheran Community Services, says testing kits is a critical reason why people come forward and report their assault or to get help.

“These are survivors and this has to do with their well-being and being believed,” she explained. “It’s an action step where they’re trying to tackle this mountain of a problem that our state and our country is facing.”

The department is requesting an additional $44,515, giving a sergeant and detective 640 hours in overtime to investigate the old cases. The goal is to have 90% of the case work done by the end of June, which is when the grant expires. It could potentially lead to closure for a victim, whether that’s through a tested kit or an arrest. However, Neilsen says closure can be a tricky word.

“It can bring back painful — like why didn’t you do anything before,” she explained. “Why is this being tested now? But it can provide people an opportunity to give access —  to receiving the informational support.”

Either way, SPD wants to make sure people can move on with their lives, knowing their kit was tested and police did everything they could to get them justice.

“We definitely want the victims to know and the survivors of this that their cases mean something to us and they’re not forgotten,” O’Brien said.

The tests kits from the Spokane Police Department is a small portion of a bigger issue in Washington.

Since the law was passed in 2015, Washington State Patrol says it had 5,261 kits dating back before July 24, 2015. Out of those, more than 1,610 DNA profiles have uploaded to the criminal database called CODIS. WSP tells 4 News Now that 624 were linked to people in the system, and 128 were a case-to-case hit.

All together, a little more than 10,000 previously untested sexual assault kits were submitted to WSP.

The agency says its goal is to have to backlog wiped out by Dec. 1, 2021. After this is done, WSP says it ensures that a sexual assault kit will be processed within 45 days receiving it by May 30, 2022.

If you or someone you know needs help, call or text the 24-hour crisis line at 509-624-7273 in Spokane.

If you’re in North Idaho, call Safe Passage’s 24-hour line at (208) 664-9303.

RELATED: Washington State Patrol crime lab sees increase in sexual assault kits, backlog