A backlog of criminal cases numbering in the thousands, inadequate facilities and a severe staffing shortage. These are the findings from an Alameda County Grand Jury on the Oakland Police Department's crime lab.
The grand jury report uncovers the serious problems within the lab and gives a sobering breakdown on how almost every area is experiencing major trouble.
In 2011, the Forensics Firearms Unit received 609 examination requests. While 230 of those requests were reported on (54 percent increase over 2010), the unit’s backlog of requests increased to 1,871 (a 15 percent increase). According to the grand jury, in response to this problem, OPD reported that it planned to cancel non-homicide requests that are more than three years old.
"The Grand Jury’s investigation concluded that the public should be concerned about the unacceptable backlog of forensics testing requests that currently exist in Alameda County and, more specifically, within the city of Oakland," stated the report, which was released by the grand jury last week.
OPD is one of two public crime labs in the area. In addition, it carries out all of its own lab work and elects not to contract out for assistance, like many other law enforcement agencies. The grand jury said this action exacerbates the department's backlog.
Inadequate facilities also are a serious problem for the lab, which is a step behind on current technology innovations, the grand jury reports.
"The OPD Crime Lab does not currently conduct gunshot residue exams or handle any digital or media evidence testing," the grand jury wrote. Also, OPD's crime lab does not have a comprehensive case-tracking database; instead a "rudimentary" spreadsheet system is used.
Additionally, the report noted an apparent disconnect between OPD and City Hall when it comes to the crime lab.
"An example of the disconnect between the city and its crime lab operations was apparent when the Grand Jury heard testimony from an elected official stating that the FBI was helping to clear the backlog of forensics testing at OPD’s crime lab," the report states. "The Grand Jury later learned this was not factually correct."
Despite the challenges at the lab, the grand jury said it found that the 22-member crime lab staff to be "held in very high regard for their professional skill and ability to communicate with juries."
The Oakland Police Department did not respond to request for comments about the report.
OPD isn't the only lab having problems. Across the country, local police forces are struggling to deal with significant backlogs. It was the recent media attention to crime lab backlogs that prompted the grand jury to look at regional crime labs.
Eleven years ago, another grand jury investigation into Alameda County crime labs recommended the creation of one consolidated countywide regional criminalistics/forensics laboratory. Despite pledges of support from major cities in the county, including Oakland, the project stalled.
The grand jury recommends OPD immediately clear its forensics-testing backlog and acquires a department-wide case management database that integrates the OPD system with county-wide criminal databases. The grand jury said it also would like to see a regional crime lab put in place.
Few other solutions to the crime lab woes are on the horizon.
"Except for seeking short-term grant funding, the city has taken little action to address the lab’s chronic backlogs and staffing needs," the report states. "Without the annual infusion of state or federal grants, the OPD Crime Lab has been forced to clear up old backlogs by simply canceling testing requests, leaving crime victims behind."
The grand jury has requested a response to its report from both Mayor Jean Quan and OPD Chief Howard Jordan.