New Orleans gets $1 million federal grant to speed up testing of rape kits _lowres

AP file photo -- A sexual assault evidence kit is logged in the biology lab at the Houston Forensic Science Center in Houston in April. The New Orleans Police Department has received a $1 million grant from the federal government to speed up its testing of sexual assault kits.

A $1 million grant from the federal government will help the New Orleans Police Department speed up its testing of sexual assault kits.

Vice President Joe Biden and Attorney General Loretta Lynch announced the grant Thursday.

Such so-called “rape kits,” collected from the victims of sexual assaults, can provide crucial DNA evidence, but the NOPD and many other police departments often have lagged in testing them and comparing the results against databases of known sexual assailants.

The New Orleans grant is part of a $41 million nationwide package announced Thursday by the U.S. Department of Justice. Nineteen other jurisdictions also were awarded grants.

City Council members have repeatedly pressed the department to speed up testing the rape kits, most forcefully after Cmdr. Paul Noel testified in December that a considerable backlog had developed at the Sex Crimes Unit.

“These federal dollars will help provide additional staffing resources and new technology to better track and manage testing of sexual assault kits and ensure that we never develop a backlog again,” NOPD Superintendent Michael Harrison said in a news release.

Police acknowledged in December that 429 kits were sitting on the shelves in the department’s Crime Lab & Evidence Division. But Harrison said many of those kits came from victims who had declined a police investigation of their case; under department policy, those kits would not be tested, he said.

NOPD spokesman Tyler Gamble said that as of early August, 180 rape kits required further investigation. That number fluctuates regularly, but it was down from the 209 that Harrison said might need to be tested in December.

In August, Harrison and Mayor Mitch Landrieu unveiled a package of reforms they said would prevent further lapses in sex crimes investigations of the sort that were detailed in a November 2014 report from Inspector General Ed Quatrevaux.

The department said it had hired a third DNA analyst to process rape kits at the State Crime Lab and that it would attempt to speed up clearing its existing backlog by sending kits to a private lab for testing.