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S.F. police face criticism for using rape victims' DNA to identify potential suspects

San Francisco police cars sit parked in front of the Hall of Justice in 2014 in San Francisco, Calif.
Justin Sullivan
Getty Images
San Francisco police cars sit parked in front of the Hall of Justice in 2014 in San Francisco, Calif.

Updated February 15, 2022 at 1:04 PM ET

San Francisco officials are criticizing the city's police department over what officials say is a newly discovered practice inside the department of searching a database containing DNA collected from sexual assault victims to identify them as possible criminal suspects.

District Attorney Chesa Boudin said using rape kit DNA to search for suspects in separate investigations treats victims "like evidence, not human beings" and called for the practice to end.

"Rapes and sexual assault are violent, dehumanizing, and traumatic. I am disturbed that victims who have the courage to undergo an invasive examination to help identify their perpetrators are being treated like criminals rather than supported as crime victims," Boudin said in a press release Monday.

The DA's office said it learned about the practice last week in connection with a case that involved a victim of sexual assault who was identified as a suspect in an unrelated property crime years after the assault.

It was unclear whether anyone had been convicted on the basis of evidence collected in this way, the office added.

San Francisco Police Chief William Scott said he was told the department's current DNA collection policies were legally vetted and conform with state and national forensic standards, but has nevertheless ordered a review of the matter.

"We must never create disincentives for crime victims to cooperate with police, and if it's true that DNA collected from a rape or sexual assault victim has been used by SFPD to identify and apprehend that person as a suspect in another crime, I'm committed to ending the practice," he said.

Scott added that it was possible the victim in the case in question "may have been identified through a DNA hit in a non-victim DNA database" but that the questions raised by Boudin were concerning enough to warrant an internal review.

Sexual assault victims are often asked to provide a sample of their own DNA during sexual assault examinations, so that investigators can differentiate between their DNA and the suspect's, the DA's office noted.

The American Civil Liberties Union said it was a violation of a sexual assault victim's privacy to use their DNA profile to possibly incriminate them in an unrelated investigation.

California state Sen. Scott Wiener said he was considering introducing legislation to end the practice statewide.

A version of this story originally appeared in the Morning Edition live blog.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Joe Hernandez
[Copyright 2024 NPR]