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LAPD loses $500,000 for lab tests

Worker's handling of application is blamed. The federal funds would have helped clear DNA backlog.

August 13, 2008|Richard Winton and Joel Rubin | Times Staff Writers

The Los Angeles Police Department has been denied nearly $500,000 in federal funds it would have received to help clear its backlog of unexamined DNA samples from crime scenes because of a bureaucratic mistake that LAPD brass blamed on a low-level administrator.

When informed about the funding cut by The Times, the president of the department's civilian oversight commission and an outspoken City Council member reacted with frustration.

"There must have been an absence of checks and balances for this to occur," said Anthony Pacheco, the commission president.

"Mistakes can happen," he said, "but there should be systems in place so they don't have such a dramatic effect on the department's efforts to take on such critical issues."

Faced with a backlog of about 7,000 DNA samples that have been collected as evidence at scenes of rape and other violent crimes, the LAPD has relied heavily on yearly funding allotments from a U.S. Department of Justice grant program.

This year, based on estimates of how much the department's crime lab could spend and its anticipated need, LAPD officials had expected a grant of well more than $900,000.

Inaccurate paperwork compiled for the grant application by an "overzealous" administrator, however, painted a skewed portrait of a police department slow to spend funds it had already received, said Sharon Papa, an LAPD assistant chief.

The employee refused to close the department accounting books that detailed its 2005 grant money because she could not immediately account for a few thousand dollars awarded that year.

That led Justice Department officials to think that the LAPD was far off pace on its spending and to award the department $435,860 this year, or $498,570 less than expected, according to a Justice Department spokeswoman.

"Obviously, we're not happy about it," Papa said. "The employee did not understand the ramifications of what she was doing, and truthfully neither did anyone else. That's the reality of a bureaucracy; one clerk can cause something like this to happen."

The staffer was reassigned and the department has tightened its oversight of its grant applications, Papa said. The employee, whom Papa did not identify, could not be reached for comment.

Papa said that enough grant money from previous years remains in LAPD accounts to allow criminalists to continue their work without interruption until more funds are allocated in 2009. The LAPD expects to be eligible for around $900,000, Papa said.

Although it won't result in a delay, City Councilman Jack Weiss, who chairs the council's Public Safety Committee and has spoken out frequently about the department's backlog, echoed Pacheco.

"It is heartbreaking," he said when informed of the funding cut. "To the bureaucrat, a thousand dollars is a line item. To me it is a rape victim who won't know the identity of their attacker."

The incident has underscored the problem the DNA backlog poses for LAPD leaders. Clearing it is a task beyond the capabilities of the 38 criminalists and lab technicians in the LAPD's DNA serology unit.

The unit, Papa said, is working at maximum capacity but is able to handle only new cases and the ones that must be processed soon, before they reach the 10-year statute of limitations set by state law.

An attempt to negotiate a deal with a private company to tackle the remaining cases was thwarted by the lab's demand that the department commit upfront to pay at least $6 million over three years, money the department does not have.

Much as the New York City Police Department looked to private donors to get a handle on its backlog, the Los Angeles Police Foundation has recently launched a fundraising campaign, Papa said.

It was estimated last year that the LAPD would need $9.3 million to clear up its entire backlog of untested DNA evidence.

Weiss, typically a strong backer of the LAPD, criticized the department for what he called its "lack of commitment" to the backlog issue, a shortcoming that arose in part, he said, because of the department's focus on hiring more uniformed officers at the expense of other needs.

The councilman, who supports the hiring of more police, said, "This problem could have been averted by making DNA testing a priority for the last several years. The department needs to understand that scientists are just as important as officers."

Amid severe budget constraints in recent years, the department's crime lab has consistently gotten short shrift as Chief William J. Bratton, Papa and other top officials have had to make tough decisions on allocating resources.

The lab's serology unit has been given permission to hire 10 more people but has not been given the funds to do so.

Also complicating matters is the 18-month training period that each new criminalist must complete, which limits how many people can be added to the lab at one time.

Most of the samples are related to sexual assault cases and are stored in envelopes and cartons inside cold storage lockers and trailers at a city warehouse facility on the eastern fringe of downtown and in a trailer behind police headquarters.

The most serious aspect of the backlog are the several hundred DNA samples that detectives need to process quickly as part of ongoing investigations.

Although exact numbers are not available, most of the backlogged samples are not yet holding up active investigations into crimes -- because a suspect in the case confessed or for some other reason -- but must still be analyzed.


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