Interview with LA County Police Chief Charlie Beck

One of our hopes for and the Backlog Blog is to share stories of how individuals and organizations are working to eliminate backlogs once they’ve been uncovered. The hope is that other jurisdictions can learn from their successes and challenges, and that together we can develop strategies to ensure justice and healing for survivors of sexual violence. Earlier this week, I chatted with LA Police Chief Charlie Beck about his department’s efforts to resolve their backlog of untested rape kits.

Sarah Tofte: How did you discover that Los Angeles had a backlog of untested rape kits?

Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck: We always knew that we had a backlog of untested rape kits—I mean, we knew that when we collected kits from victims, that some of them were sent to the crime lab and some were not. Around three years ago, we decided to consider any kit collected from a victim and not tested as a kit that was part of the backlog. So, under the direction of then-Chief Bratton, we went into our evidence storage facilities to count the kits. We knew how many kits were waiting for testing at our crime labs, but we had no idea how many untested kits were in our storage facilities. Honestly, we didn’t make a whole lot of progress at first in figuring out how big the backlog was. So I got 100 or so of our cops to go in and spend weekends counting the kits. It took a few weeks, and we came out learning we had thousands of untested kits in our facilities.

That is when the impact of the backlog hit me, because now it was my problem. Now it became my backlog and my responsibility, and I came to the conclusion that we had a problem that needed to be addressed and that we needed to redefine our priorities and also redefine the way we thoughts about rape kit testing. We had to test every one of these kits, and eliminate the problem for good.

At first we didn’t know if we should test kits in all cases. The victim’s advocacy groups helped us come to realize that there are significant advantages to testing a kit other than just identifying an unknown suspect, and we realized we could connect crime scene evidence together and things like that. We also knew that testing every rape kit would build confidence in the criminal justice process for victims, by building their confidence—that is a huge piece. As the DNA database has become more robust, it’s just the right thing to do. Testing the rape kit is keeping the promise that the police make to a victim when we collect the kit from them—they go through a rape kit exam so that we will test it. You want the public to trust that we, as police, are here to solve crimes.

ST: What were some of the biggest challenges in clearing your backlog?

CB: There were lots of challenges. One is that you have to get everyone working with the same definition of what a backlog is and making sure we are all on the same page with our definitions. I found that what our crime lab considered a backlog was different from what detectives considered a backlog was different from what the City Council thought it was and from what advocates thought it was. Everybody actually wanted the same thing, the same outcome, but you have to get everyone on the same page.

The other huge problem was figuring out what kinds of cases were in our backlog. We had no idea how many kits were connected to stranger rape or non-stranger rape cases. We didn’t know how old the cases were. We didn’t know if some of the cases had already been solved by other means. It took us a long time to figure out exactly what kinds of cases we had in our backlog.

Securing funding was very difficult, as was coming up with a long-range plan that doesn’t just depend on the one-time heroic solutions. We needed a long-term plan for funding and making sure the backlog never comes back. A big part of getting funding for a long-term plan is making sure you have political buy-in from the city. We got that, in part, because of the incredible public attention being paid to this issue. People think we wouldn’t like that kind of scrutiny, but it actually helped us to motivate our officials to support us financially in what we needed to do.

ST: What advice would you give to police departments who don’t have the funding to end their backlog?

CB: First, you have to make rape kit testing a priority. The elimination of our backlog, when it is finally accomplished, will happen because of public, private, and federal funding. You have to see if you can leverage private money and see if you can get federal dollars. This is where it helped us to have all the public advocacy and pressure. That advocacy helped us to get funding. It helped us advance our goals of eliminating the backlog. All that enthusiasm and emotion and pressure applied to police departments to solve this problem can be a catalyst for us to gain support to end this problem. You can see the public attention as a problem or a solution, and we decided to make it part of our solution. We could use that attention to hold our elected officials accountable for giving us the funding we needed for our cause.

ST: What is your backlog like today?

CB: Every rape kit will have been tested by October of this year (2010). We will have all of those test results put into our DNA database by March of 2011. By early next year, we will have all the crime lab personnel hires we need to test every future booked rape kit in a timely manner, so that we don’t grow another backlog.

ST: What kind of additional government support would help you continue to make progress?

CB: My number one wish is for more research into how to make DNA testing more efficient, and how to put in better data tracking systems in our facilities. I would love to see the cost of a rape kit test go down from $1,000 or so to much less because of the invention of more efficient and effective technology. I would like to see a national discussion about what a rape kit backlog is, how to define it, and the best practices for how to deal with it. And, of course, we could always use more federal funding.

ST: What kinds of investigative leads have come out of testing the backlog in Los Angeles?

CB: We got dozens of stories where people have been identified and crimes have been solved, these last two years. The success on the DNA front has led to the capture of two of the most prolific serial rapists in Los Angeles. Some of the cases were very, very old. I have no doubt that we will solve hundreds of crimes once this backlog is eliminated.

ST: What motivated you to end the rape kit backlog?

CB: I have daughters. And I’ve obviously worked with hundreds of rape victims during my career and all those things weigh into it. The reason I became a police officer is to protect those who are less able to protect themselves. Victims where crimes go uninvestigated and go unsolved, they have no voice in the system. And that is what we are here for, to give them a voice.

ST: What would you tell a fellow police chief in another city who has just discovered they have a rape kit backlog?

CB: Don’t panic, recognize and try to deal with the reality, try not to get involved in organizational protective rhetoric, try to determine what the reality of your problem is, and face it head on. Then use everything that’s in your jurisdiction or authority to bring about the solution. There are a million ways to solve the backlog. You have to use all your resources. Don’t give up. Work at it everyday, but you need a long term and short-term plan. Detective work is about persistence and you have to apply that persistence to this problem. And, if they get stuck, they can call me.

ST: What does it mean to you that the rape kit backlog is close to being eliminated in Los Angeles?

CB: I would like to see the crime of sexual assault, become the crime that is most likely, of any crime, to result in arrest and prosecution. Victims should be unafraid to report it. And perpetrators should be extremely afraid to commit it. I want there to be a sense among would-be-rapists of a certainty of capture. All that comes from good police work and good science. There is no reason that people who commit these crimes should go unidentified. Proper investigation and good science could make the crime of rape a thing of the past. This is a national disgrace, and people have to recognize that we have to just dig in our heels, and get to work to end the rape kit backlog. It’s really that simple.

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