Help to clear crime-lab backlog would tally $3.5M 

Turning around The City’s troubled crime lab will come at a high cost — $3.5 million just to take care of the DNA-testing backlog.

The full impact of The City’s failure to properly run its crime lab remains uncertain, but what’s clear is that it’s going to take a lot of money to turn around the facility and handle the fallout after accusations that at least one lab worker was stealing drugs sent in for testing. The allegation has led to the dismissal of hundreds of drug offense cases.

Costs range from fixing up the crime lab building itself, sending evidence to outside crime labs for testing and more staff for the police, district attorney and public defender to handle the fallout. 

The Police Department’s crime lab, which opened in 1999 at the former Hunters Point Naval Shipyard, tests evidence — gunshot residue, trace evidence such as fibers, paints, glass and narcotics — used in investigations and in ensuring criminal trials.

The mounting costs come at a challenging time for The City, which is facing a budget deficit of $483 million. The crime lab has 21 staffers and operates on a $4.7 million budget.

“For us to clear the DNA backlog, which is 250 cases, if we outsourced that alone, it would be about $3.5 million just to get back no backlog whatsoever,” assistant police Chief Jeff Godown said during Monday’s Board of Supervisors Public Safety Committee hearing. “And that’s just the DNA, and we are not even looking at everything else.”

As of Friday, 448 narcotics cases had been sent to an outside lab for testing. Police Chief George Gascón shut down the lab’s narcotics unit following allegations that 60-year-old labor worker Deborah Madden, who retired March 1, stole drug samples. An audit involving the lab’s DNA-testing unit, which remains in operation, is due out by April 30.

“My commitment to you is to get the lab back up and running,” Godown said. “And it’s going to be costly.”

The lab and its workers remain under investigation, and it remains unclear how many narcotics cases are impacted by the lab’s failed operation.

“There is a lot of confusion around the numbers of how many cases are actually affected,” Chief Assistant District Attorney Russ Giuntini said.

To date, 335 preliminary hearings were dismissed, along with 166 cases set for trial, he said.

jsabatini@sfexaminer.com

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