4 of 10 on Backlogs: Where are backlogs causing problems?

All over the U.S., as we know from stories about the rape kit backlog.  But backlogs aren’t only in DNA processing, and affect us in countless ways.  Here is a sampling of stories reported since November 1, 2013:

In North Carolina, they are making roads more dangerous. One lab does all the blood-alcohol analysis for the state. “I think the last time they looked at it there were 13,000 cases statewide that were in the lab in some stage of the process,” said local MADD Representative Ellen Pitt. “We have people who are dying and being injured because of whatever is wrong in our system.” See this report from WLOS for more info.

The Charlotte Observer reported that in North Carolina’s medical examiner system, heavy autopsy caseloads raise the risk of mistakes.

In Connecticut, WFSB has been reporting for two years on the heartache caused by backlogs in the medical examiner’s office in Farmington.

In Tennessee, WMC reported that “Clearing the 12,113 unprocessed rape kits in the Memphis Police Department’s possession will cost more than $4.6 million dollars.”

CBS in Chicago reports major backlogs in several areas of testing at the Illinois State Crime lab.  A firearms examination backlog left the family of a young man shot to death waiting  a year for results.  While the girl lives in terror and her rapist is free, the 15-year-old’s family has been told her rape kit may be not processed for another four months.  “Chief Judge of the Circuit Court of Cook County, Timothy Evans warns there could be a ripple effect” of problems finding witnesses after long delays, new crimes committed, and in degraded evidence. He cites 9000 cases backlogged for Cook County cases alone. “The 2-Investigators obtained crime lab records and found, for this year as of July, it is taking an average of 238 days to complete Firearm/Toolmark testing. Rape kits are averaging 281 days to be tested, with 3,378 backlogged.”

The Fort Worth, Texas crime lab has sought funding for outsourcing to deal with its backlog, according to this WFAA report.

Also in Texas, CBS Dallas/Fort Worth reports that a new crime lab is being built by the Denton County Sheriff’s Office on the University of North Texas campus. “Currently all work for Denton County is done by the Texas Department of Public Safety’s lab in Garland. The location also has a major backlog. Sheriff Travis said there are thousands of drug cases still open, because they are waiting on test results. “’Right now they are overworked and understaffed.’”

In Louisiana, the Acadiana Criminalistics Laboratory in the Baton Rouge area has been making headway in reducing backlogs, the Advocate newspaper reports, but without increased funding, faces an uncertain future.

In another part of Louisiana, the Shreveport Times reported on the groundbreaking for a new lab that will serve 29 parishes.  The lab is currently housed in a building built in 1929, and due to its limitations, “the crime lab has a backlog of more than 800 unworked cases needing DNA and firearms analysis.” All of the parishes it serves have to send “evidence out of state to be processed.”  

In Ohio, ABC’s Cleveland affiliate, News 5, reported that the police chief recently appeared before the Public Safety Committee of Cleveland City Council “to explain how thousands of rape kits containing DNA evidence went untested for years.”

We’ll be talking more about Ohio‘s SAK Testing Initiative, but it is worth noting, as the Pike County Daily reported, that 4,956 previously untested rape kits have been turned into the state’s crime lab as of 12/2/2013.

In Missouri, KMOV was told that “because of a backlog at the state crime lab, it’ll likely be months before the suspects [in a major drug bust] get in front of a judge.”

Missouri’s KOLR news looked at DNA backlogs and their effect on investigations of rape and murder cases.  “Director of the Missouri Highway Patrol’s Crime Lab Bill Marbaker says the lab’s case load has grown exponentially. In 2004 the patrol’s lab analyzed just more than 700 pieces of DNA evidence.  In 2012 that grew to 38,000 pieces.”

According to an interview with Norwich University Professor Peter Stephenson by Vermont Public Radio, the “current backlog for digital forensic cases in Vermont is about two years…”

In West Virginia, the Register-Herald reported that “the State Police digital forensics lab at Marshall University in Huntington has two civilian analysts and a six-month backlog of cases. A similar lab in Morgantown has one civilian analyst and a 14-month backlog.”

In Virginia, when the WRIC investigative team tried to discover how many rape kits were sitting on shelves in local police departments, they ran into an unexpected problem. “What is perhaps most shocking is that despite the abundance of databases and spreadsheets that can easily keep record of important information, the Henrico County Police Division has no idea how many kits are sitting in its evidence room.”

In Michigan, when WWMT reported on the cold case investigation of a child’s murder six years ago, they noted that “Last year [police] sent evidence samples to a crime lab in Grand Rapids for analysis. They tell us it has taken a long time to get results due to a backlog.”

Also in Michigan, in a suburb near Grand Rapids, the Alpena News reports that “the Wyoming City Council approved spending $100,000 on lab equipment after its police department complained that it took too long for results to come back from the state police crime lab.” [The MSP lab has since responded that its statewide average turnaround time for blood alcohol tests is the lowest it has been in more than 15 years.]

In California, the San Francisco Chronicle reported that “hundreds of grieving families have been forced to wait several months – and, in many cases, more than a year – to obtain a death certificate with a cause of death from the shorthanded medical examiner’s office.”

In Pennsylvania, WPIX looked at DNA testing delays in the state lab.

If your state is not included in any of the articles above, remember that this is just a sampling of articles published in about one month — don’t assume that means there are no backlogs in your nearby labs and death investigation offices.  It is far more likely that some form of backlog exists there than not.  And if a criminal commits an act in one place where there are backlogs and crosses jurisdictional lines into another where there are not, not having backlogs does not ensure the safety of those near his new residence.

In an ideal world, we would wait no longer for results than it took to run a test, confirm its results, and complete a report — police would be better able to use forensic science to solve crimes, rather than (as often happens now) hoping it confirms investigative work done by methods largely the same as those used in the 19th century.  We are far from that ideal world, but we should not resign ourselves to the belief that it is unobtainable.

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