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

COVID-19 has changed most aspects of life, including criminal investigations. In Washington, there are more than 8,000 sexual assault kits waiting to be tested. The Washington State Patrol Crime Lab has slowed down testing because of the pandemic and other factors.

They’ve seen an increase in several of their testing kit categories. Most of the incoming kits are from older crimes.

“We actually started seeing an increase, than what we projected back in November,” said Chris Loftis, Washington State Patrol’s communications director. “Thought that was all a one or two month blurb, but it followed into January, February as well.”

Loftis said over the last four months, they’ve seen between 300-400 additional kits of one type or another. It was more than what they anticipated.

There are two types of sexual assault kits. One is a sexual assault kit (SAK) that goes to the top of the queue list for testing.

“The ones for crimes that just now happened and are being turned into us that have some sort of investigatory or prosecutorial need that’s immediate,” Loftis said.

The other is what they classify as SAK2 or SAK3. These are the older cases. As of April, there are more than 7,000 of these types of kits waiting to be tested. COVID-19 has slowed down the process to test them.

Kits can take anywhere from 50 to 80 days, depending on the type of kit. Results for older kits can take as long as two years.

“But as we are finding, that DNA when entered into national databases often returns with “hits” from other cases in other states and jurisdictions,” Loftis explained. “So processing those cases does have significant value beyond the specific case for which the sample was taken…thus the expense and effort to test all samples is certainly justified.”

Other evidence gets sent to the lab for testing that isn’t a sex crime.

“The need has just grown faster than the law enforcement capacity has kept up with,” Loftis said. “There’s just an escalating need for crime lab services.”

Because of the pandemic, it’s disrupted crime lab services.

“You add the need for additional cleaning. You add the, you know, the impact on staff being out or being quarantined,” Loftis said. “We’re getting the job done, so this kind of bubble that we’re seeing is not that great. It’s just exacerbated by the COVID issues.”

WSP needs to chip away at the backlog because of state legislation.

“The goal and the mandate from the legislature is that when we’re done with this, it’ll be a 45-day turnaround from the time it’s received to the time it’s completed,” Loftis said.

They also have to get rid of the backlog. WSP plans to chip away at it with new resources.

“We actually got two new labs coming online,” Loftis said. “There’s very few companies out there that do that sort of work.”

Prior, they only had one private company testing older kits. More capacity and effective equipment will also help with the backlog.

“This month and next month, we’re going to see significant increases in the outsourcing,” Loftis explained. “And then in July we’ll see the Throughput Lab, so this bubble that we’ve experienced in the last few months — we should see that care off in the next few months.”

The new lab will be in Vancouver, which he said will help with a rapid decrease in the backlog. They’re also bringing in 18 new staff members to help with testing.

“We’re certainly on track to meet our mandatory goals that the legislature set by May of 2022,” Loftis said. “There’s a mounting need for this type of service in this state. As the state’ population grows, as our society changes and we see increases in certain types of crimes and certain types of needs.”

To keep track of the current backlog, Attorney General Bob Ferguson launched a Sexual Assault Kit Initiative (SAKI) website last month. On the home page, it says how many kits have been tested, how victims can track their kits and resources available to survivors.

“We’re doing the best we can to close that gap, but five years from now, 10 years from now, 20 years from now — we’ve got to think about that, too,” Loftis said. “Those needs will continue to grow.”

If you or someone you know has been a victim of sexual assault, click here for local resources.

RELATED: SPD: Man with COVID-19 arrested twice, 6 officers now self-quarantining