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November 20. 2019

Local cities responding to Grand Jury rape kit report

SOUTH COUNTY — Gonzales city officials formally submitted a response on Monday to a Grand Jury report that found law enforcement agencies in Monterey County lacked the adequate resources for rape kit testing. The city is required by law to respond to the report.

Grand Jury investigators were prompted by the nationwide media coverage of thousands of backlogged rape kits throughout the country, according to the report.

The report, which was published in June, made several findings including that agencies like the Gonzales Police Department (GPD) “lacked awareness and provided unclear and inconsistent information” as to whether there were any backlogged rape kits, a lack of a centralized place to post information regarding sexual assaults, and that training sexual assault forensics isn’t prioritized in the budgeting process.

“If true,” the report noted, “this jeopardizes public safety and potentially circumvents victims’ rights.”

According to the report, agencies in Monterey County investigate about 150 rape-related crimes each year. The frequency of these crimes have steadily increased during the past 10 years, the report noted.

A rape kit is a package of items that police and medical personnel use to preserve evidence, such as DNA, of an alleged sexual assault. The kit generally contains such items as a checklist, materials, envelopes and containers to package specimens for forensic examination, as well as instructions.

Due to lack of funding, according to Gonzales Mayor Maria Orozco, the city has struggled to provide training for officers or hire specialized investigators for sexual assault crimes.

“Funding has always been a challenge for small communities like ours,” Orozco said, “especially when you don’t have the funding to hire someone to do a specialized task.”

The report found that advance training is available for sexual assault investigators, but that agencies are relying on senior officers to provide on-the-job training and are also cross-training less experienced patrol officers to supplement understaffed teams instead of increasing well-trained investigators.

The city agreed to both findings, stating that it has inadequate funds, limited staffing and that it has to rely on field officers to conduct follow-ups on sexual assault cases.

According to the city’s website, the GPD has 14 sworn officers and supplements police volunteers. The department does not have a department detective or investigator, according to the report.

Instead, Orozco said, Gonzales relies on cooperation from nearby cities. An example of this is the Four Cities For Peace initiative, Orozco said. Representatives from each city meet once each month and the partnership is designed to “eradicate poverty and violence,” according to one Monterey County document.

The cities — Gonzales, Greenfield, King City and Soledad — and the county currently operate under a memorandum of understanding that is essentially a pre-diversion program, which is designed to prevent at-risk South County youth from becoming ensnared in criminal activity, and strengthens the ties between law enforcement and the community.

The program is funded with an $850,000 grant from the state.

Greenfield is still in the process of drafting its response to the report, according to police Capt. James Hunt, who noted that his department is in the process of training its officers.

California offers courses through its Institute of Criminal Investigations (ICI).

“Both of our detectives have completed the 80-hour ICI core course on investigations, and we plan on sending them to the ICI sexual assault investigations course in the near future,” Hunt wrote in an email.

King City Police Department Chief Robert Masterson said that his department is compliant with what the law specifies and has no untested rape kits.

Masterson said that the department’s in-house investigator is up-to-date on sexual assault training. The city is drafting a response to the report, he added.

In an email, Soledad Police Department Chief Eric Sills stated that the city’s attorney is drafting a response to the Grand Jury report.

The report also made several recommendations, such as systems to track rape kits and developing an interagency method to track sexual assault occurrences via a centralized database.

Several measures have been taken nationwide to address the backlog. In addition to being a recipient of a portion of $38 million, according to the report, the state attorney general received a $1.6 million grant to increase DNA analysis. The government approved AB 3118 in September 2018, requiring that sexual assault evidence kits are preserved, audited and the data reported to the Department of Justice by July 1, 2019.

Orozco said there is still challenges to meet the mandates of the report because of the lack of revenue, despite the grants. When that happens, she added, the city must take drastic measures, such as cutting back on other programs or services.

“It’s a challenge though, I tell you,” Orozco said.

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