LAPD seeks lab-procedure improvements

LOS ANGELES LAPD's lab technicians don't carry guns but they do catch criminals.

"DNA's now become the principle method by which one of the main ways we use to identify suspects," said criminalist Guy Holloman.

Yet the DNA lab is underfunded and under fire because of a backlog of 7,000 cases. Evidence sits in freezers. Some cases are more than 10 years old, passing their statute of limitations. At a separate LAPD lab, a similar problem: The Latent Print Unit needs more analysts too.

"Right now we have about a nine-month backlog, so it's about 3,000 cases waiting to be processed through the Los Angeles Automated Fingerprint Identification System," said Denise Williams, Latent Print Unit.

A shakeup is under way because of previous poor oversight. One analyst was fired and several disciplined after two people were accused of crimes they didn't commit. Both labs demand perfection.

"You can't speed through something, or through a case, or through any analysis, because you don't want to make mistakes," said criminalist Shannon Kelly.

But processing is time-consuming: four hours just to label and document samples, and much longer to heat and isolate DNA.

"Digestion and extraction process takes anywhere from a day to three days," said Holloman.

It will take weeks to process it into an image that can be uploaded and compared to other images.

"And that typically takes about a week before I know whether it's going to match somebody or not," said criminalist Nick Sanchez.

Elapsed plan time, three weeks. LAPD's plan is to hire 16 more criminalists. They are banking on funding from the City Council. At the Latent Print Unit, proficiency tests will be conducted twice a year and there will be more audits for quality control.

"The biggest thing is just getting us more staff in order to meet the demands that have really been hitting us hard," said Williams.

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