The San Francisco Police Department drug-testing lab will remain closed indefinitely until security and staffing issues outlined in an independent audit released Tuesday are resolved.
The 14,000 cases that go through the drug lab each year are a burden on the two to three analysts charged with testing the potency of drugs collected during arrests, according to the audit by two laboratory directors, Robert Jarzen of the Sacramento District Attorney’s Office and John Yoshida of the state Department of Justice.
The expected 48-hour turnaround and the limited staff “creates an untenable situation and directly affects the quality of the analytical work,” the report said. “Good laboratory practices have been repeatedly short-changed in favor of high case throughput.”
Because of the stressful and unmanageable caseloads, there was a “fertile environment” for tampering with evidence, police Chief George Gascón said at a news conference Tuesday.
The Police Department continues to make drug arrests despite more than 500 cases being dismissed since the lab shut down March 9. Drug evidence is currently being sent to outside labs for testing. Gascón said the department plans to send 1,100 samples to the state Department of Justice at a cost of $75 to $125 apiece for retesting.
Deborah Madden, the San Francisco criminalist accused of stealing cocaine and OxyContin from evidence samples, had access to the thousands of cases that go through the Police Department’s lab each year with little security or control, according to the audit.
Drugs in cardboard boxes were left on the floor by couriers and, once unpacked, were stored in lockers accessible to the two overworked lab technicians and a supervisor.
“Any analyst in the Controlled Substance Unit was able to gain access to any other analyst’s short-term drug evidence storage locker,” the report said.
Earlier this month, after police announced that Madden, a 29-year civilian lab worker, had been skimming cocaine from evidence, the Police Department changed the process so that access to individual lockers was limited. But other security issues remained.
“The security and [chain of custody] of these cases could be called into question,” the report said, in regards to evidence left in cardboard boxes. “A secure central storage areas or cabinet should be used, rather than a box on the floor, for incoming and outgoing drug evidence.”
Other security issues abound, the report said. Bags containing drugs were sealed with resealable zipper storage bags instead of with a heat seal or other secure closure that prevents tampering.
Police Chief George Gascón has asked the state Attorney General’s Office to come back to perform another audit of the beleaguered SFPD crime lab, this time in the DNA testing lab.
As The Examiner reported earlier this month, the control samples for two DNA tests were found to have the DNA of the lab technicians themselves. Gascón said Tuesday there are 250 backlogged cases in the DNA lab.
Also, there are 1,446 backlogged gun-analysis cases, meaning evidence that “tells a story” is languishing in the lab while a killer could go free, Gascón said.
The Department of Justice is expected to return for the DNA lab audit in April.
— Brent Begin