Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Failure to hire sufficient, competent lab staff hindering Austin burglary clearance rates

For many years, every budget cycle the Austin Police Department has proposed sizable expansions of the number of patrol officers while failing to boost civilian crime-scene techs and lab capacity to solve the crimes - particularly home burglaries - that rank highest on the public's complaint list. Reported the Austin Statesman (Dec. 24):
Austin police solve fewer than 10 percent of the city’s residential burglaries, a little less than the national average of 12.7 percent, according to the federal government’s Bureau of Justice Statistics.

The low number of cases “cleared” — by indicting suspects or recovering stolen property — has persisted despite 20 years of declining crime rates. Police departments across the country face backlogs of unprocessed evidence because of personnel shortages. As evidence rooms fill up, the time needed to analyze fingerprints and DNA keeps growing.

For the Austin Police Department, solving burglary cases comes down to manpower: It’s lab technicians, not detectives, who are in high demand.

Three-quarters of Austin’s more than 6,300 burglaries last year were of residences, according to police data. The department has a backlog of 1,500 fingerprints, said latent print supervisor Officer Dennis Degler.

“For the past few years, we’ve done with four examiners when we should have had six examiners,” Degler said. “We haven’t been granted any new positions, and we haven’t had any new positions in the past decade.”

Two employees were laid off because of a decision to pursue stricter standards and accreditation from an international organization, Degler said.

“We’re trying to get away from the stigma that our people were not competency-tested, that we didn’t have good quality control,” Degler said. “When you’re talking about depriving someone of their freedom through forensic evidence, credibility’s important.”

The 25 employees of the department’s recently established Burglary Unit have continued to collect more evidence than the examiners can efficiently process.
The low clearance rate cited for burglaries investigated by APD is actually higher than they've reported in the past. Still, think of it: The lack of two examiners undermining the work of two dozen officers in the burglary unit and generating hundreds of backlogged cases. Regardless, for years APD administrators emphasized patrol officers over crime lab staffing in their annual budget requests. For want of a nail,  the shoe was lost ...

It's also remarkable that, for some undefined period, APD apparently employed two people in its crime lab who were not competency tested and who fostered a perception that they "didn't have good quality control." Well then, when and why were those folks hired in the first place? How many cases did they work on? What problems triggered their dismissals? And why weren't they replaced with actually competent staff instead of letting backlogs pile up to unacceptable levels? In a lot of ways, the story raises more questions than it answers.

The Statesman story is right that crime lab backlogs are growing seemingly everywhere, overwhelmed by unprecedented demand. Even where funding has increased substantially, as at state crime labs, it still hasn't kept up with growth. Offhand, I can't think of a law enforcement agency in Texas that wouldn't benefit more from expanding forensic capacity than adding patrol officers.

Austin's new 10-1 council would do well to stop hiring ever-more patrol officers, at least for a budget cycle or two, to focus on bolstering crime labs, the 911 call center, and other civilian components of the police agency which the old council ignored in favor of paying for ever-more uniformed officers. If the city wants more police coverage, there are ways to do that without a budget increase.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Do I understand right, that the demand calls for six fingerprint examiners, they had four, and two were laid off so the lab only has two left?