Editorial: Public needs full transparency on SFPD’s use of rape kit DNA

DA Boudin’s allegations about police handling of rape kit DNA raises questions

San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin on Monday accused the SFPD crime lab of violating the trust – and possibly the rights – of an alleged sexual assault victim by using a DNA sample from a rape kit in an effort to link her to a recent burglary.

In a case Boudin said was brought to his attention last week, a DNA sample taken from an alleged sexual assault victim in 2016 is now being used by police in an effort to charge the woman in relation to the property crime. SFPD Chief William Scott pledged to get to the bottom of the issue, and District 9 Supervisor Hillary Ronen and state Sen. Scott Wiener both announced plans to pursue legislation to ban the tactic. On Tuesday, Boudin’s office dismissed the case against the unidentified woman.

“I think the questions raised by our district attorney today are sufficiently concerning that I have asked my assistant chief for operations to work with our Investigations Bureau to thoroughly review the matter, and report back to me and to our D.A.’s office partners,” said Scott, according to a story in the San Francisco Chronicle.

Scott committed to ending the practice, saying “we must never create disincentives for crime victims to cooperate with police.”

Boudin’s decision to blow the whistle on this issue could easily be seen as the latest escalation in the war of words between the DA and Chief Scott. But the story quickly made international headlines and the implications go far beyond petty local politics. The revelation raises serious questions about whether such policies might be widespread in other police departments.

At a press conference on Tuesday, victims’ advocates flanked Boudin as he blasted the DNA collection tactic, calling it an abuse of victims’ trust.

“We know that, historically, in San Francisco and across the state of California thousands of rape kits have gone untested altogether,” said Boudin, who later on Tuesday dismissed charges against the woman. “Now we learn that those kits that were tested have the DNA – not of the suspect or the perpetrator – but of the victim … the woman who came forward to courageously cooperate with law enforcement, to submit their body to an invasive procedure in one of their most vulnerable moments. And that trust has been abused.”

Pamela Tate, executive director of a domestic violence victim advocacy group called Black Women Revolt, called the practice a “revictimizing” of sexual assault survivors.

“It creates barriers that again will harm people that will make people not come in to get the assistance that they need,” Tate said of the practice. “It will allow rapists to stay on the street because people will continue to underreport when they have experienced rape.”

Studies have consistently shown that most rapes and sexual assaults go unreported. “Forty percent of rapes and sexual assaults were reported to police in 2017, but only about 25% were reported to police in 2018,” according to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center.

Victims of sexual violence have varied reasons for deciding not to report the attacks, including a fear of re-living the trauma or being blamed for the situation.

“The decision is complex,” Timothy C. Marchell, a clinical psychologist at Cornell University, told the Wall Street Journalin 2018. “Reporting can be re-traumatizing, empowering, or both. Part of healing is regaining a sense of control after having lost it in the assault. But when someone makes a report, they lose control again when systems take over.”

The notion of police saving a DNA sample for possible use against them in a separate criminal case will only make victims feel more pressure to avoid reporting their assaults.

“If survivors knew that their own DNA evidence would potentially be stored and used against them at a future date, even less survivors would come forward,” said Ronen, who said she had asked City Attorney David Chiu’s office to draft legislation to make the practice “explicitly illegal.”

The use of DNA to solve crimes has been a miraculous, and sometimes controversial, technological development. DNA has helped solve hard-to-crack murders like the Golden State Killer case, which might have remained unsolved without the use of innovative DNA methods. While the use of familial DNA and the technique known as investigative genetic genealogy have sparked privacy concerns from critics, society is generally better off using science to prosecute violent criminals who might otherwise evade accountability.

We are not better off, however, by creating yet another reason for sexual assault victims to fear contact with police. Survivors of rape and sexual assault should never have to fear that cooperation with the police might be used against them later. Chief Scott must embrace full transparency and come clean about how the SFPD uses rape kit DNA and whether it has used such evidence to charge sexual assault victims in unrelated cases.

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