N.M. auditor meets police on 'rape kit' backlog

Steve Garrison

FARMINGTON — State Auditor Tim Keller met with Farmington police officials today to discuss factors that contributed to the state's backlog of untested sexual assault kits and to review the department's evidence room.

State Auditor Tim Keller talks about the backlog of sexual assault kits that need to be tested on Wednesday during a meeting at the Farmington Civic Center.

Keller said at a public meeting this evening at the Farmington Civic Center, one of several held throughout the state in the past month, that he believed the Office of the State Auditor could help create a uniform procedure for police departments to catalog and submit sexual assault kits to the state's crime lab in Santa Fe. He said police departments and the state's crime lab also needed additional resources to catalog and test sexual assault kits in the future.

Farmington police Chief Steve Hebbe said he had a good discussion with the state auditor, and he agreed the state crime lab needs additional funding. He said the funding would not only assist in testing sexual assault kits, but also other forensic evidence critical to criminal cases.

Keller said he would next audit the state crime lab. After that visit, his office will release a report detailing its findings.

"Each one of these kits is a reflection of the worst hour or time span in someone's life," Keller said. "So we are concerned about any backlog, absolutely."

The New Mexico Department of Public Safety sent letters to law enforcement agencies throughout the state in September asking officials to provide the department with a count of the untested sexual assault kits in their possession.

Agencies reported there were 5,406 sexual assault kits collected but never tested. About 65 percent of those kits were held by the Albuquerque Police Department, but the remaining kits were held by the state's smaller police departments and sheriff's offices.

Law enforcement officials in San Juan County reported about 100 untested sexual assault kits in their possession.

State officials have said testing the kits could lead to more arrests and could help identify serial offenders. Testing the kits would also honor a commitment the state made to victims who underwent the invasive sexual assault examination and expected results.

Connie Monahan of the New Mexico Coalition of Sexual Assault Programs talks about the backlog of sexual assault kits that need to be tested in New Mexico on Wednesday during a meeting at the Farmington Civic Center.

In its most recent session, the New Mexico Legislature provided $1.2 million to the state crime lab to test the backlog of kits, which is currently being done.

The Office of the State Auditor announced in May it would audit police departments throughout the state to determine best practices needed to clear the backlog and prevent it from happening in the future.

Other departments audited included sheriff's offices in Bernalillo County and Curry County, as well as police departments in Curry, Gallup, Hobbs and Las Cruces.

The office also held community meetings throughout the state to discuss the backlog.

Keller was joined at the public meeting in Farmington by Chief Government Accountability Officer Sarita Nair and Connie Monahan, the statewide sexual assault nurse examiner coordinator at NM Coalition of Sexual Assault Programs. Nair said the Farmington Police Department has a "very sophisticated system" for tracking sexual assault kits. The department also maintains good documentation, according to Nair.

Nair said more funding was not only needed for local police departments and at the state crime lab, but for the nonprofit organizations that provide sexual assault examinations and victim counseling.

Monahan said those organizations will likely see an increase in the need for counseling services when the newly tested sexual assault kits begin to show results.

"There are 5,400 victims of sexual assault who are hearing and seeing the attention on this, and recognizing that this number (of untested kits) might include them, and they are waiting for the knock on their door," Monahan said.

Eleana Butler, executive director at Sexual Assault Services of Northwest New Mexico, said she was glad to see the backlog of untested sexual assault kits was being addressed.

"I am really happy to see they have been engaged with all the communities, particularly the service providers that are collecting the kits," Butler said.

Steve Garrison covers crime and courts for The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4644.