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Crime Lab Backlog Raises Concern For Public Safety

Audio

Aired 5/28/10

An investigation into the San Diego Police Department’s Crime Lab finds a backlog of DNA evidence from unsolved crimes. Has public safety been compromised?

GLORIA PENNER (Host): I’m Gloria Penner. I’m joined by the editors at the roundtable These Days in San Diego. Today we’ll examine the DNA backlog at the police crime lab and how this backed-up evidence affects citizen safety in San Diego, local reaction on both sides of the border to the President’s plan to send 1200 National Guard troops there, and why medical marijuana dispensaries are ordered to close before San Diego sets any rules. The editors with me today are Lorie Hearn, executive director and editor of the Watchdog Institute. Lorie, thank you so much. This is your debut performance on Editors Roundtable.

LORIE HEARN (Executive Director/Editor, the Watchdog Institute): Thank you for inviting me, Gloria.

PENNER: And I’m looking forward to having you with us for a long, long time. Vicente Calderon, editor of tijuanapress.com. Vicente, you made it over the border today in plenty of time. Thank you for coming.

VICENTE CALDERON (Editor, tijuanapress.com): Thank you. Good morning.

PENNER: And JW August, managing editor of 10News. JW, always a pleasure to see you with us.

JW AUGUST (Managing Editor, KGTV 10News): Top o’ the morning to you, Gloria.

PENNER: Thank you. JW, you stole my line. Our number here is 1-888-895-5727, that’s 895-KPBS, and I hope you’ll join our conversation. Well, according to the website of the Watchdog Institute, its mission is to produce investigative journalism to inform San Diego and Imperial County. Its latest target is the San Diego Police Department Crime Lab where it found scientists overwhelmed with a backlog of DNA samples. So, Lorie, what was it that made the Watchdog Institute focus attention on the crime lab?

HEARN: Gloria, the thing that came to our attention, the crime lab came to our attention, was the arrest of John Albert Gardner in early March. And we, because of the incident involving the jogger at the Rancho Bernardo Park, which was linked to him, we decided we would look at the DNA backlog because that DNA sample had been caught up in the backlog for quite some time before it was actually tested. One of our big missions at the Institute is to do data analysis. We have investigative reporters as well as data analysts and this was a perfect opportunity to ask the City for its crime log backlog electronically. We got that. Took a little bit of time to get it but they were very cooperative in giving it to us and what that enabled us to do, if the folks go to our website, we have the data set actually on the website and it shows the date, the samples were put in, what the crime was, how long the sample has been languishing in the backlog. We felt that this was really an important public safety issue because if there are lots of DNA samples sitting in the crime lab that have not been tested, as a lot of people pointed out in our story, that could mean that there are criminals out there who could be arrested for crimes.

PENNER: I’m going to turn to JW August on this because, you know, you’ve been around for a few years, JW, and I remember that this issue has come up before.

AUGUST: Absolutely.

PENNER: It was reported more than two years ago that the county sheriff’s department crime lab was behind in its DNA testing of evidence gathered from homicides and sexual assaults to other crimes including burglaries and auto theft. First of all, do you know whether the sheriff’s department and the police department have separate labs?

AUGUST: They do. They do. And I actually talked to the sheriff about this. They have – and we did a story about a year ago on it, and their lab is actually caught up because they’ve started putting resources – In fact, they are – they’re chug – they’re ahead of the game, which when I saw the Institute’s report, I wondered, I wonder if San Diego Police is talking to the sheriffs about taking some of the burden off their backs. I don’t know if they have or haven’t, but I think the sheriff’s department is on their game as far as this goes.

PENNER: So you’re not quite sure of whether there’s communication between the two departments on this.

AUGUST: No.

PENNER: Okay.

AUGUST: And I don’t know if it’s a political issue. If it was and they can’t let go to another jurisdiction to do the work but, I mean, now they used to ship all this stuff up to Sacramento initially, before the labs started coming online. The first lab was in Sacramento.

PENNER: All right, well, let me ask our listeners to weigh in on this one. All right, you’ve heard it now. There’s a backlog of DNA evidence that has not been sorted out, not been looked through and could very well provide material for crimes that are still ongoing and still unsolved. What is your concern about this? Our number is 1-888-895-5727, 895-KPBS. Vicente, I don’t know whether you’ve been keeping up with what’s going on in San Diego. You’ve been pretty busy in Tijuana but according to the FBI, San Diego had the third lowest violent crime rate among cities over half a million and the fourth lowest in property crime, so now what we’re talking about, basically spending thousands to clean up the backlog. Why would we even be interested in this if our crime rate is so low?

CALDERON: Well, because I think they believe that there’s more people basing their prosecution or the analysis on this type of options and something more concrete, more scientifically based and not just statements on other type of police work. And that is – I think that is increasing the request of these type of samples.

PENNER: Is that…

AUGUST: And…

PENNER: Go ahead, JW.

AUGUST: Well, I was going to say don’t juries like DNA evidence? I mean, when your prosecutor comes in there with DA evidence – DNA, they trust that and I think probably the DA’s office would love them to increase, you know, amount of information they’re getting about – on DNA cases or DNA, the backlog cleared up so the evidence…

PENNER: Well – Go ahead, Lorie.

HEARN: Well, clearly detectives are collecting much more DNA evidence in many more kinds of cases than they ever have before. And what’s really interesting to me is that in the last few months the backlog has gotten even worse. There has been this incredible spike of cases that they did have a backlog of about ten cases a month, now they have 50 cases a month. They can’t really explain what’s causing that, which is fascinating because the crime rate is down so there would be fewer cases from which to take DNA yet there are more requests for DNA sampling. So the conclusion has to be that they’re just collecting DNA in more cases. What the quality of that sampling, that DNA evidence is, we don’t know. The crime lab also can’t say why the spike is occurring.

PENNER: When you talk about the quality, what are you talking about?

HEARN: Well, the DNA Lab makes decisions on the priorities of samples that it’s going to test. And it takes into account all kinds of things, like if a suspect kind of just touches a public area lightly or something like that where it’s – they don’t think they’re going to get a really good sample of DNA, those samples go to the bottom of the list. If they have a really good, you know, a really good DNA sample of, you know, a cup that someone drank out of, I’m sure that goes to the top of the list. Also, the kinds of crimes. The thing with John Albert Gardner, that jogging case was originally classified as an attempted robbery and not a sexual assault. If it had been categorized as the latter, it probably would have been at the top of the list.

PENNER: So who determines what’s going to get priority and what isn’t?

HEARN: Well, my understanding is, is the scientists who actually do the testing. Certainly, they’re subject to a certain amount of pressure by the police and the others who might be involved in cases who want their cases pushed to the top of the list.

PENNER: I get…

CALDERON: And the media sometimes, I guess.

PENNER: Go ahead. I’m sorry, Vicente.

CALDERON: And the media sometimes, I guess. I mean, if a case if very publicized, they will work more on all the evidence.

PENNER: Sure.

AUGUST: Yeah, and this is a good example of investigative reporting because if you read the report, the story on the website, two days after the story’s published, they assign two old murder cases. They decide to take a look at them, the lab did. 2006, 2007 murder case.

PENNER: Umm-hmm.

AUGUST: That’s good investigative journalism. That’s what it does.

PENNER: So is that the purpose of investigative journalism, to get some movement on issues that seem to languish, is that what you’re saying, JW?

AUGUST: Well, we all have different opinions what’s good investigative journalism.

PENNER: Well, what is the purpose of good investigative…

AUGUST: My – my feeling – I think investigative journalism is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. I know that sounds like kind of a catch phrase but that’s how I feel. That’s what I think is good investigative journalism.

PENNER: And you certainly get involved in investigative journalism, Vicente. Do you agree to, what is it, comfort the afflicted and afflict the uncomfortable? Or something.

AUGUST: What?

PENNER: All right.

AUGUST: Oh, I got that one. Did I get that backwards?

PENNER: No, I think I did.

AUGUST: Oh, okay.

PENNER: Vicente.

CALDERON: No, I think it makes sense. I’m not sure that that will be the impact on – I think it’s – we need to make some changes – cause some movement, changes. And I’m not sure in this particular piece, I’m sure it’s a very good piece of investigative journalism and data analysis mainly in this case because I understand that the police departments are working – are dealing with the fact that the bottom line here is the lack of economic resources and the lack of money.

AUGUST: Yeah.

CALDERON: And we need to find out which is more important. I mean, we are having this low level of crime, do they need to be working more diligently in this type in the lab? Or do they need to assign more money instead of police officers on the street? What’s the combination? This prob – war gives us a good aspect on this side that we are not always able to see.

PENNER: So definitely, Lorie, funding always seems to be the issue but if we do have a choice between, let’s say, boots on the street and investigating backlogged evidence, where does the pressure come from to make these choices?

HEARN: Well, I think funding issues are always political, and the pressure always comes from the people. Hopefully, the people are well informed enough that they can put pressure on their – the people they elect to represent them and make those decisions. I certainly can’t say which is better, boots on the street or more scientists. I think they probably need to look very carefully at exactly how the lab is run, how it’s managed, how many cases are assigned to different scientists. I mean, I think you kind of need to take an overall look at the efficiency of the lab before you can just say, oh, we’re going to throw more money at it or we’re going to, you know, take more police dogs out of commission or more officers off the street and put that money into the crime lab. The city is in dire financial straits in a lot of areas. This is just one of them.

PENNER: 1-888-895-5727, 895-KPBS. We’re talking about backlogged, excuse me, DNA evidence, evidence that more and more’s being called upon by prosecutors and by the defense as a way of proving crimes and proving the guilty, and we want to know your opinion on whether you think that perhaps more resources should be thrown at the labs that have this backlog. Again, 1-888-895-5727. Can we blame this all on the city budget, Lorie, or do the crime labs also get some federal funding?

HEARN: No, the crime labs get federal funding. As a matter of fact, this – the City’s crime lab has – had spent $2 million in just the last few years to try to wrestle its backlog to the ground. They’re going to try to get more federal funding, I think, but that’s – it – it’s a money issue but it’s also, as I mentioned earlier, I think it’s an efficiency issue. I’m not saying the crime lab is inefficient. I’m just saying I think somebody needs to take a look at its workload and how it processes its workload. And I think, as JW said, collaboration is – could be an answer here. I don’t know what the legal restrictions are but taking a look at the county’s crime lab, the sheriff’s department crime lab, is probably not a bad idea.

PENNER: Vicente, you were going to chime in.

CALDERON: Oh, just to say that they are probably gathering more information and we have to – also have to recognize that they are helping also the Baja authorities, the Tijuana authorities, who have been increasing their investigations on more scientific like the case of the San Diego authorities in their operation in Tijuana, in Baja California. Talk about a backlog, I remember in 2008 they run out of testing samples, swabs to get the things.

PENNER: So you’re saying that they’re…

AUGUST: I can see that happening, yeah.

PENNER: Saying that the resources are being spread out. What is the good, JW, of improved technology, technology that allows you to determine whether a person whose DNA has been picked up on some evidence in some other site might also be involved with another crime? What’s the good of the improved technology if it creates demand for testing and that demand can’t be met?

AUGUST: Well, that – not all the demand. They’re meeting some of the demand. But I think the most important thing is you don’t put an innocent person in prison, you don’t put somebody in the death house that doesn’t deserve to be in the death house. Look at the Innocence Project and how they review cases and check the DNA in the case and people walk away that have been in prison for years. That’s one good thing. And the second good thing is you get the bad guys off the street. You know, this guy may – you know, they’ve got a guy in there for burglary, how many times have we heard we’ve got him in – they’ve got him in there for a burglary and his DNA matches a killing down in South Bay or something?

PENNER: Okay, well, we’re going to take a break now and we’ll be back in just a few seconds. We’ll wrap up our discussion about the investigation by the Watchdog Institute of DNA in the San Diego Police Crime Lab, and we’ll take your calls when we come back. This is the Editors Roundtable. I’m Gloria Penner.

PENNER: This is the Editors Roundtable. I’m Gloria Penner. And I’m here today with Lorie Hearn of the Watchdog Institute, JW August from 10News, Vicente Calderon from tijuanapress.com. We are talking about an investigative report that Lorie Hearn’s Watchdog Institute which, by the way, is affiliated with San Diego State University and the Union-Tribune in partnership, right?

HEARN: Well, we’re actually based on the campus.

PENNER: Yes.

HEARN: We’re an independent entity from the university…

PENNER: Right.

HEARN: …but we are involved in teaching.

PENNER: Okay, and so that’s just a little background on the Institute. I thought since this is Lorie’s first time here, we should let you know who she is. And they’ve done this investigative report on the backlog of DNA evidence at the San Diego Police Crime Lab and that’s what we’ve been talking about. So we’re going to continue with a phone call from Tony in Chula Vista. Tony, you’re on with the editors.

TONY (Caller, Chula Vista): Hi. Just wanted to say that, you know, I’m a chemist. My brother’s a police office. And we often talk about crime, and he was telling me that it was recently, like two, three years ago that DNA kits were available to regular police officers and they were pretty much swabbing, you know, were getting DNA evidence for regular misdemeanor crimes all the way up to regular, you know, felony crimes, I think, I mean, before. So that may be adding to the problem.

PENNER: Very interesting, Tony. Our number is 1-888-895-5727. You still have a chance to get in on this part of the conversation. What’s your reaction to that, Lorie? Did you know about that? The DNA kits being available?

HEARN: I did not but it certainly makes sense when you think about the increase in the numbers. I mean, DNA evidence, I think, ten years ago the DNA Lab had 275 requests for testing and they’re expecting 2000 this year? So certainly that would be reflected – that would explain a lot of what the police are doing here.

PENNER: JW.

AUGUST: Oh, and one interesting thing. When I was talking to the sheriff about what their lab’s doing, they actually now are using it to solve property crimes, DNA. And they’re having a much better success rate because they take the – you know, they put their – the bad guys climb on the window sill or touch the window where the glass – and they’re able to solve a lot – they have a higher percentage of property crimes. So it’s not just murders and rapes. They’ve found even property crimes it helps.

HEARN: Right, half, you know, half the cases in the backlog are burglaries and attempted burglaries.

PENNER: Okay. You know, I was just thinking about all of the television shows that are on the air now that sort of are crime shows and a lot of DNA is discussed and all that, what I’m wondering is, is where the pressure comes from now to clean up the backlog. I mean, other than an investigative report, are we seeing any pressure? You were, even though you’re on the other side of the border, Vicente, you know, public pressure.

CALDERON: I don’t think there’s much of that because they were not very much aware of what was going on there. That’s the, I think, the beauty of work like this that shows this – if they need to be putting more resources, more funding in the lab or, again, redirecting this, maybe they have to review the way they have been collecting all the samples or maybe they are not using many – and there’s not really a need for those. So I think as the evolution of the investigation comes in general, they were putting too much emphasis probably? I mean, I’m not saying that that’s the case but that’s an opportunity to check that possibility.

PENNER: JW.

AUGUST: Well, a program like this or an investigation like the Institute, that’s the sort of stuff that we need to do in order to trigger some dialogue in the public and make the public aware, okay, this is an issue. We need to deal with it.

PENNER: Okay. Thanks for your call, Tony. And any final comments, Lorie, before we move on?

HEARN: No, but I think what JW said about initiating dialogue, that’s certainly one of our missions, that, you know, you do an investigative piece and you want to put it out there and have people say how important is this to me? And if it is important, I now have the information I need and I’m going to do something about it.

PENNER: Excellent. Thank you very much, and thank you for coming.

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