Weeks after the San Francisco Police Department used DNA evidence from a woman’s rape kit from years ago to charge her with a poverty-related crime—only to dismiss the charges in the face of public pressure days later—city officials announced this week that SFPD will no longer use DNA collected from sexual assault victims to investigate them for unrelated crimes.
According to San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin, the aforementioned case of the unnamed victim’s rape kit being used to arrest her for a suspected felony made Boudin aware of the “opaque practice” by the police department, prompting his office to investigate how often police may have done this. SFPD’s crime lab formally stopped the practice upon receiving a complaint from Boudin’s office last Friday, a spokesman for SFPD Chief Bill Scott said on Wednesday.
Last week, Boudin noted that sexual assault victims who sign waivers to have their DNA collected in a rape kit aren’t agreeing to their DNA being used as possible evidence to charge them for future crimes. “Even if it were mentioned somewhere in the fine print, is that an appropriate waiver to seek from a victim who’s just come in and reported a sex assault? Absolutely not,” Boudin told the San Francisco Chronicle.
USA Today reported that for the last seven years, SFPD’s crime lab has kept a database of DNA from victims of violent crimes and even child victims, which could be used as evidence in possible future, unrelated crimes—a practice that law enforcement and forensic experts told the newspaper was “highly unusual, unethical and shocking.”
Even following the announcement that SFPD will discontinue this practice, and amid the district attorney’s ongoing investigation into how common this practice has been, demands for answers and transparency persist. Earlier this week, House Intelligence Committee chair Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA) wrote a letter to FBI Director Christopher Wray asking Wray to clarify federal laws around use of DNA from rape kits.
Schiff asked the FBI to disclose the extent to which this happens and whether the agency has authority to stop it, noting the “chilling effect on reporting of rapes and sexual assaults” that this practice could have. The FBI has yet to issue a public response.
As we await results from Boudin’s investigation and a response to Schiff’s letter, it seems worth noting that criminalization of survivors isn’t uncommon. In 2020, one survey found 24% of women who have called the police to report intimate partner violence say in response, they were arrested or threatened with arrest. As a result of what’s known as the sexual assault-to-prison pipeline, 90% of incarcerated women have survived sexual violence.
Unsurprisingly, the vast majority of sexual assaults are unreported to law enforcement, and a majority of survivors who report their assaults say they were failed or even retraumatized by law enforcement. SFPD’s recent use of a rape kit as evidence against a survivor years after it was collected is horrifying—and ultimately part of a greater crisis of police departments failing and even criminalizing survivors.