HOUSTON -

Since 2011, the Houston Police Department has faced mounting criticism over the thousands of untested rape kits sitting in evidence. Now, because of a recently completed audit, HPD knows exactly how big the problem is and just how much of a challenge the department still faces.

Last year, Local 2 Investigates was first to report on a massive back log of untested rape kits stored in the department's property room. These kits can contain vital pieces of evidence that can help catch and convict sexual predators and help rape survivors find justice.

Last year, HPD was one of only two police agencies in the country to be awarded a federal grant from the National Institute of Justice to conduct an audit as to exactly how many rape kits have been sitting in evidence untested. HPD officials told Local 2 that audit is complete.

HPD reported, as of Dec. 1, there are 6,663 untested rape kits stored in evidence. HPD officials said some of the untested kits date back to the 1980s.

"Rape kits have to be a No. 1 priority," said Ray Hunt, president of the Houston Police Officers Union. "These kits have to be tested and they have to be tested quickly."

Even though HPD now has a specific number of untested kits, the department is still working to determine how many of these kits actually contain evidence that can be tested, how many are from cases where a rapist has already confessed or been convicted, how many involve cases where a victim recanted and how many involve cases where the statute of limitations has run out. HPD officials said answering these questions is expected to help reduce the department's overall backlog. HPD officials said once this work is complete, the department will have a so-called priority list of which rape kits involve active cases where getting evidence tested can help get rapists off the streets.

HPD officials were also cautious to point out no decision will be made as to which kits will or will not be tested until after the department has a specific reason as to why the kit was never tested and after thoroughly researching the status of any investigation surrounding that kit. HPD said this work will take several months but would not speculate on an exact time frame.  As HPD continues this work, the second phase of the NIJ grant involves studying how this problem occurred and developing best practices for the timely handling of rape kits in the future. The results of this research could be used as a model for other police departments around the country grappling with the same backlogs.

However, HPD officials said one of the biggest challenges will be finding the resources to tackle the backlog while at the same time handling an average of 930 new rape kits submitted to the department each year.