Portland, Ore., Tackles Untested Sexual Assault Kits with Tech

Portland, Ore., is tackling an abundance of untested sexual assault kits with an upgraded IT system that brings new efficiencies. Across the country, police agencies are using it to move past unwieldy spreadsheets.

by / January/February 2019
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A few years ago, the police department in Portland, Ore., set out to inventory and subsequently track all of the sexual assault DNA kits that its detectives handle. This was back in 2014. Portland, with a population of about 650,000, was taking in roughly one new sexual assault kit each day. Those kits were being logged into the evidence room to await transfer while between 80 and 100 other kits were at the Oregon State Crime Lab being processed. These kits inherently contained potential evidence that for law enforcement could be used in prosecutions. For the victims, they contained hopes for justice.

Portland was far from alone with its tracking struggle. In fact, nationwide there was no systematic means of inventorying the kits, and, perhaps more importantly, there was no way for jurisdictions to share information about suspects, which was of particular concern since sexual assault is a crime often perpetrated by serial offenders. Although the reasons are more complex than simply being unable to track the status of kits, in recent years law enforcement agencies across the country have accrued a massive number of untested sexual assault DNA kits, numbering by some reports as high as 175,000. 

In Portland, it fell to Susan Lehman, the police department’s sexual assault kit program coordinator, to devise a means of tracking them. So Lehman created a spreadsheet using Microsoft Excel. And the kits continued to come in.

“You can imagine how difficult it is to keep track of which one is there, which has gone through initial screening, which has gone to DNA testing, or which has produced results and may be going into the national DNA database,” Lehman said. “The Excel spreadsheet just kept getting bigger, with more columns and more lines. It just became really quite unmanageable. It’s like having 100 balls in the air at any given time, and the chances of one of those falling through the cracks — especially if you’re using a manual system or an Excel spreadsheet system — the chances are really high.”

It quickly became apparent to Lehman that continuing to add more rows and columns to her one manual spreadsheet was untenable, an unwieldy and inefficient way to handle an inherently sensitive task. So, Lehman reached out to Portland’s Bureau of Technology Services, setting into motion a collaboration between that office and the Portland Police Bureau Sex Crimes unit. 

Four years later, a solution born out of that partnership is now spreading to jurisdictions across the country, many of which Lehman estimates use similar Excel spreadsheet systems. This spread is contributing to a decrease in the number of sexual assault DNA kits nationwide sitting in evidence rooms, untested.

A New Approach

The program that grew out of this collaboration is called the Sexual Assault Management System, or SAMS. What it does is manage all aspects of sexual assault cases, including investigative tasks like keeping track of sexual assault kits and where they are in the testing process. It’s not outward facing — it contains too much sensitive data for that. It also has few free-form fields, to reduce the potential that the humans who are doing the data entry will make mistakes.

The development of the platform was relatively simple, with police officials like Lehman contributing greatly to the process. Work began in late 2015, lasting a little over eight months, with police in Portland first starting to use the new platform in August 2016. Ed Arib, an information systems manager who worked on SAMS development and continues to be involved, said the team used Microsoft technologies to build the platform, including ASP.NET, C#, Web API, Xamarin and SQL Server. The platform currently runs on Microsoft IIS Webserver and Microsoft SQL Server. The length of investigations and prosecutions for sexual assault cases makes it so there are no concrete numbers available yet showing how SAMS has affected the city’s statistics. Those who use it daily, though, like Lehman, said tracking is vastly easier and more efficient with SAMS.

The cost of the development process was $100,000, paid by the city for development tools and an outside contract with a software developer, with a subsequent $800,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Justice going toward further development, as well as some of the costs associated with spreading the platform to other cities.  

Once other cities become interested in the platform, developers use the grant money to visit them and start working with their teams, familiarizing them with the project and its capabilities. Portland continues to pay developers’ wages while the grant money accounts for their travel costs. 

SAMS was built with this kind of sharing in mind, and its design allows jurisdictions to populate its drop-down menus with their own values, adding fields that they might track with greater regularity. Las Vegas, for example, has a larger number of cases that involve tourists and visitors, and so they’ve been able to modify the program in a way that makes it easier to track those metrics.

As the sexual assault kit coordinator in Portland, Lehman now uses SAMS almost every day, and the department’s detectives use it for case management as well. Currently, Lehman estimates that SAMS has been populated with about 6,800 cases. Arib described the design process as an agile one in which there were multiple iterations.

IT staff would essentially build a working site and then collect reviews on its effectiveness from actual police on almost a weekly basis, implementing their feedback before returning soon to learn more. Arib said using an agile process that essentially embedded IT within the police department reduced the amount of guesswork and saved time. 

“It was basically built by police for police,” Arib said. “It was built internally, versus a vendor coming up with an application they thought would be useful for police.”

This is, perhaps, why Portland has had so much demand to take SAMS and install it in other cities, helping to improve the ability of those jurisdictions to track their untested sexual assault kits too.

SAMS in Other Cities

The efficiency of SAMS is perhaps best conveyed by the number of jurisdictions that now use it. In addition to Portland, the platform is up and running in a wide range of cities, including Austin, Texas; Duluth, Minn.; Memphis, Tenn.; Charlotte, N.C.; Fayetteville, N.C.; Las Vegas; and Mobile, Ala. In addition, exploratory processes are underway to soon bring SAMS to Miami and multiple jurisdictions in Hawaii.

For those who built the platform, this comes as no surprise. Dan Bauer, deputy chief technology officer for Portland, said that SAMS was built with the intention to spread it to other jurisdictions. The reason for this is twofold. Sharing in the gov tech sector is commonplace, given that the obstacles faced by one jurisdiction are often the same or similar to those faced by another, and that, more importantly, public agencies are not competitive with each other the way private businesses are. 

The second reason, however, is that a more efficient data collection and sharing process for information related to sexual assault benefits law enforcement efforts in all jurisdictions. Essentially, once police in Portland and state law enforcement in Oregon, for example, are both using SAMS, they’ll be able to correlate the results of test kits with known perpetrators, potentially finding connections between cases in a way that might have otherwise been missed. 

SAMS will be installed at Oregon’s Salem Police Department later this year, making it the second jurisdiction in the state to use the platform. Developers in Portland, however, have also built a related statewide victim portal and law enforcement database called SAMS-Track, which is slated to be deployed statewide in Oregon next year. SAMS-Track has the same solutions for tracking sexual assault kits as the full product, and it also connects jurisdictions directly to local and statewide forensic labs.

“There was a lot of learning as far as what’s needed to be tracked, so we built it in a way where it can be extended,” Arib said. “Everything is configurable so we’re not locked into certain decisions.”

This has all enabled easier tracking and cooperation among jurisdictions, which has in turn increased the amount of data and analytics that can factor into investigations and ultimately prosecutions around the country. Instead of sexual assault kits sitting on shelves in evidence rooms, they’re now being processed, moving closer to justice for the victims of sexual assault.

Zack Quaintance Assistant News Editor

Zack Quaintance is the assistant news editor for Government Technology. His background includes writing for daily newspapers across the country and developing content for a software company in Austin, Texas. He is now based in Washington, D.C. He can be reached via email.

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