Ten months after the San Francisco Police Department promised to address its crime lab backlog by hiring more DNA analysts, the lab is more short-staffed than ever.
Lt. Troy Dangerfield says the crime lab would be fully staffed with 11 technicians. It currently employs just four, a spokesman said.
Meanwhile, San Francisco spends $150,000 every month sending criminal evidence to an outside lab because it lacks the in-house capacity to test it, according to spokesman Albie Esparza.
Last year, the crime lab’s DNA analysis operation was the object of scrutiny from city supervisors and police commissioners after at least two cases emerged in which suspects committed violent crimes while their DNA awaited testing for other crimes. In one case, the crime lab failed for years to test the DNA evidence in the homicide of a transgendered woman, while the suspect continued to rape and brutalize other transgendered women. The DNA lab has at times had a backlog of more than 500 cases.
After this and other high-profile cases, the Police Department found money to outsource its DNA backlog, which at that time topped 375 cases. In June, the department promised to hire new DNA analysts so the cases could be brought back in house.
But in the meantime, a staff that numbered six technicians a year ago has been pared to just four, and the department has neither replaced the lost technicians nor hired more. A department spokesman said the four technicians each have a caseload of about 20 cases, which police have described as “considerably above industry standards.”
Esparza said two technicians are on the verge of being hired, and The City’s Department of Human Resources has agreed to allow it to hire more. Dangerfield said it would take 11 analysts to fully staff the lab.
There is no longer a backlog, because every case has either been turned over to an outside lab or assigned to one of the four local technicians. Police say that about 30 cases a month are being turned over to a private lab in Richmond, at a cost of about $1.8 million a year.
However, it’s unclear how quickly samples are actually being tested. High-priority cases can be turned around as quickly as three days, but police say they do not know how long cases deemed low priority are left at the bottom of the list. Dangerfield said the
Police Department does not track such information.
“I’m not saying it’s not important,” Dangerfield said. “I’m just saying they don’t track that.”
Kim Carter, a union representative for San Francisco’s lab technicians, said the high caseload combined with the public scrutiny has not been good for the morale of lab workers. She called it outrageous that the department has been so sluggish about hiring new workers.
“If they had really put it at the top of the priority list, they could have gotten it done within a couple of months, but it’s been almost a year,” she said. “And that’s really unreasonable.”
It’s already been seven years. What’s one more?
Police say that a piece of equipment purchased in 2004 to help the crime lab run more smoothly has still never been used, and is unlikely to be ready for at least another year.
The machine, called the ABI Prism 3100, can analyze 16 DNA samples at a time, while the equipment currently being used by crime lab staff can only test a single sample at a time.
Despite the timesaving potential, the machine was never set up correctly, and the staff was never trained to use it. It gathered dust in the lab until last summer, when the Police Commission got wind of it and asked that it be used.
In August, Lt. Troy Dangerfield said that the “tech guys have gotten the machine ready for operation,” but that the equipment still had to be tested for accuracy and the analysts had yet to be trained on it. This process should take six months to a year, he said.
But more than eight months later, the equipment is no closer to being operational. Dangerfield said last week that testing had been put off because the equipment needed an upgrade. Once the tests begin, they are likely to take a year. He could not say how soon those tests are likely to begin.
How the crime lab shapes up:
FULL STAFFING OF LAB:
CURRENT STAFFING OF LAB:
CASES OUTSOURCED EACH MONTH:
MONTHLY OUTSOURCING COST: