Expanded testing for property crimes has helped create a backlog of more than 4,600 DNA cases in the Harris County crime lab, straining its ability to complete the processing of such evidence for sexual assaults and even homicide cases in a timely manner.
Officials with the Harris County Institute of Forensic Sciences say a relentless uptick in property crime, robbery and assault cases has stretched the lab’s resources. The spikes can be traced in part to the lab’s own push in recent years to expand its forensic operations and offer law enforcement agencies more DNA testing for property crimes.
The lab serves more than 60 law enforcement agencies, which rely on it to process DNA evidence as part of criminal investigations. Officials are particularly concerned about how the backlog has affected sexual assault cases, which they’ve pledged to make a priority as the cases have recently taken longer to finish.
Sexual assault cases took on average of 172 days to complete in 2015, far from the county’s 60-day goal and the roughly 60 to 90 days that they took from 2009 to 2013 The average for homicides and death investigations is now 238 days, though it is more difficult to set a benchmark in such cases because evidence often comes in piecemeal over time.
The backlog – defined by county lab officials as containing any case that has not been completed – has set off a debate over how to prioritize DNA testing in the short term and handle lesser offenses such as property crimes in the long term.
[Crime Lab Director Roger] Kahn said the lab already has essentially halted analyses of DNA in some property crimes. Last July, the institute said it would suspend “touch DNA” analysis – such as testing for microscopic skin cells containing DNA that naturally rub off on objects – for almost all property crimes.
The moves have contributed to a drop in the number of sexual assault cases that take more than 60 days to complete: after reaching 252 in January, that number was 148 last month, Kahn said.
He stressed that the high numbers are also in part because of new protocols to reanalyze some cases that have samples containing multiple people’s DNA. These, he said, can often be the most complex cases.
All this being said, Kahn acknowledged that the turnaround times are too high.
He said lab officials are looking at halting some analyses of assault and robbery cases. The lab is also planning to work with sexual assault nurse examiners to better identify samples to analyze in such cases, and is weighing other possible workflow improvements.
For their part, county commissioners on Tuesday approved the crime lab’s move to apply for a National Institute of Justice grant of more than $645,000 that would help its DNA division – the Forensic Genetic Laboratory – reduce the backlog. It has applied for and received the same grant since 2005.
Commissioners also approved a roughly $100,000 contract to outsource some property-crime testing to a private company, Bode Cellmark Forensics, an uncommon move but one that the county has made in the past.
It’s unclear what will happen to property crime cases, and possibly robbery and assault cases, that the county crime lab may set aside to focus on sexual assaults and homicides. Kahn said the lab works closely with law enforcement and the district attorney’s office to prioritize cases, even those involving property crimes.
At Wednesday’s meeting, District Attorney Devon Anderson questioned whether the lab should be making decisions of what types of cases to prioritize.
Sheriff Ron Hickman said telling the public that the county lab had the technology to solve crimes, but couldn’t use it because of lack of resources, would not “play well.”
“How do you get to say, ‘No?'” Hickman said.
Kahn said the current focus is on sexual assault cases. Then lab officials, with other public officials, will determine how best to use the lab’s resources.
There’s a lot there and I don’t want to make too big a deal over it. Both DA Anderson and Sheriff Hickman raise good questions, for which they deserve better answers than “we’ll figure it out later”. If this is a matter of resources, then Commissioners Court needs to address that. The County Crime Lab serves multiple cities in addition to the county, so it’s not just their own business that’s being affected.
We can’t discuss the Harris County crime lab without mentioning the Houston lab and the ongoing debate over whether the two should merge. I’ve noted before that there are questions about how the county handles crime lab issues and how the city’s needs would be accounted for. This situation highlights those concerns. As the story notes, the city’s crime lab has its own backlog issues, though they are smaller and seem to be on track towards resolution. I’m just pointing this out to note that there are questions to answer before anything can go forward. If you want this to go forward, which is certainly a reasonable thing, those questions need to be addressed. It’s not insurmountable, but it’s not nothing and shouldn’t be treated as nothing.