- Associated Press - Friday, December 19, 2014

NEW ORLEANS (AP) - New Orleans police say they’re working through a backlog of more than 400 untested rape kits. The kits are important elements in an investigation, especially when a victim is attacked by a stranger and DNA is essential.

Disclosure about the untested rape kits came during a New Orleans City Council hearing Thursday that delved into longtime problems with the police department’s handling of rapes and child abuse.

Police on Friday were assessing the backlog and figuring out what it consisted of, said Tyler Gamble, a police spokesman.

It was unclear how serious the backlog is. For example, victims may choose to not have their rape kits tested but those kits remain in police custody and could be part of the backlog. Also, it was possible that some of the kits in the department’s backlog were part of investigations being carried out by other law enforcement agencies.

In November, a scathing city inspector-general’s report found that five detectives in the sex crimes unit failed to do substantial investigation on more than 1,000 sex crimes and child abuse cases between 2011 and 2013. Those detectives and two supervisors have been removed from the unit. In one example, the report found one detective allegedly closed with minimal investigation the case of a small child taken to a hospital due to an alleged sexual assault even though the child also had a sexually transmitted disease.

Since the release of the report, police Superintendent Michael Harrison and Mayor Mitch Landrieu have promised to clean up the unit. A team of detectives is poring over the unit’s work and reopening hundreds of cases. On Thursday, Harrison said detectives from the special team had identified 101 overlooked cases that need to be “actively investigated.”

This is not the first time the police’s handling of sex crimes has been found lacking.

In 2010, the U.S. Department of Justice found there was a backlog of more than 800 rape kits sitting untested with New Orleans police detectives. After that, and as part of a wide-ranging consent decree with the Justice Department, police worked through that backlog and in doing so ended up making dozens of arrests by matching DNA profiles found in the backlog of rape kits with the DNA of offenders listed in an FBI DNA database.

On Thursday, Harrison promised to make lasting changes. “Under 21st century leadership, we don’t transfer problems, we fix problems,” he told the council.

He said new devices to track the performance of detectives and supervisors would flag problems when they come up.

New Orleans police are working with the U.S. Department of Justice to institute changes laid out in the consent decree.

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