Like many states across the country, Washington is determined to clear the backlog of sexual assault kits (SAKs) awaiting comprehensive forensic analysis. Each sexual assault kit represents a survivor of sexual assault, and the Washington State Patrol is working hard to clear the backlog.
Prior to July 24, 2015, it was estimated that over 9,200 sexual assault kits had not been submitted to the Washington State Patrol (WSP) Crime Laboratory for DNA testing.
A sexual assault kit contains evidence collected during a forensic examination from an individual who was sexually assaulted. These exhibits are intimate samples from the body, including orifice swabs, skin swabs, fingernail swabs, and sometimes clothing items.
In 2019, the Washington State Legislature enacted House Bill 1166 (HB 1166), with the goal of further supporting sexual assault survivors. HB 1166 instituted important time frames regarding DNA testing of sexual assault kits, forming two strategic testing initiatives for SAK testing in Washington State. The first initiative mandated that by December 1, 2021, all previously unsubmitted sexual assault kits in law enforcement storage be submitted to the crime laboratory and tested for DNA. The second initiative mandates that by May 2022, all sexual assault kits will be processed for DNA within 45 days of receipt into the crime laboratory.
The WSP continues to make progress in meeting these important time frames. In July of 2019, the WSP received approval and funding from the Washington State Legislature, in addition to a federal grant, for approximately $13 million. These funds were to be used to construct, equip, and operate a High Throughput Laboratory for the testing of SAKs. These funds also allowed the WSP to hire sixteen additional DNA scientists statewide- eight of which would be assigned to the High Throughput Laboratory- to increase capacity for testing sexual assault kits, and for outsourcing a subset of previously untested sexual assault kits.
The WSP Vancouver Crime Laboratory was chosen as the perfect location to construct and operate the new High Throughput Laboratory since that location had existing unfinished space that could be remodeled into a custom High Throughput Laboratory. The new laboratory space houses the updated robotic equipment necessary for implementing a streamlined and efficient workflow; improvements that were made to ensure WSP is able to continuously meet the legislative time frames for testing SAKs.
In July 2020, the Vancouver High Throughput Laboratory opened its doors… figuratively speaking. Due to Covid-19, the grand opening event has been postponed until a later date; however, the High Throughput Laboratory scientists are already busy at work testing sexual assault kits and developing and optimizing a high throughput sexual assault kit testing program.
While the High Throughput Laboratory is an important milestone and addition to WSP’s DNA testing program, the Washington State Patrol’s five regional multi-service crime laboratories, employing a team of DNA scientists across the state, are also an integral component working towards eliminating the Washington State sexual assault kit backlog. These scientists are testing sexual assault kits and sexual assault related evidence (e.g. clothing or bedding), while also balancing the need for testing evidence items collected from homicides, assaults, cold cases, and other serious crimes. Washington State law enforcement agencies rely on the WSP crime laboratories to provide superior forensic testing to increase the public safety of the citizens of Washington State.
“Sexual assault affects everyone in some way, and we’re dedicated to improving our capacity to clear the backlog and get DNA results turned around faster. Every kit is important, and every survivor is important. We want the survivors to have closure, and we want law enforcement to have the DNA results for their investigations to be able to get the offenders off the street so they don’t hurt anyone else,” says Kristina Hoffman, the DNA Operations Manager with the Washington State Patrol.
The Washington State Patrol is excited to make available the below video that provides an inside view of what our new High Throughput Laboratory looks like and how it will be used to assist in eliminating WA State’s sexual assault kit backlog.