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Fingerprint lab's not up to the task

LAPD says staffers struggle to handle their workload. Missing files and poor oversight plague the crucial unit.

November 17, 2008|Joel Rubin and Richard Winton | Rubin and Winton are Times staff writers.

"Court cases have been delayed because of this problem," a unit supervisor told specialists at a May 2006 meeting. Handwritten signs are commonly posted on office walls when a file goes missing, Castro and others with knowledge of the unit said.

In the past, misplaced files were typically found in trays on desks or in desk drawers. This year, specialists were given secure lockers to store prints they analyze.

Three years ago, after being denied funds for a computerized file-tracking system, a print specialist with little computer knowledge was asked by supervisors to build a rudimentary one, Castro and Beck said. The in-house effort has been far from successful, however, as specialists regularly fail to update the system with information about file whereabouts, they said.

"It is certainly not a system for the 21st century," Beck said.

The Maldonado case is not the only instance in which prints were lost. In 1998, records show, detectives trying to solve a slaying case from a few years earlier asked the print unit to re-examine the fingerprint evidence. The unit could not find the prints and a frantic, weeks-long search proved unsuccessful. The prints have never been found, and the case remains unsolved, Beck said.

In a department in which audits and internal investigations are used regularly to detect possible problems, oversight of the fingerprint unit has been uneven. Command of the technology lab, of which the fingerprint unit is a part, changed hands five times in the six years Castro led the unit, she said. And within the unit each supervisor oversees about 15 specialists -- far too many, Beck says.

With insufficient supervision, training and promoting specialists has been done in a largely ad-hoc manner, Beck, Castro and others said. In 2000, Beck said, the department did away with the exam it had used to test specialists who sought promotion from collecting prints in the field to analyzing prints. The decision to drop the test was made, he said, shortly after the department added three dozen new members to the unit and "management was overwhelmed with overseeing the increase in examiners."

Now, specialists automatically become qualified to make fingerprint matches after spending three years collecting prints at crime scenes. Before they are allowed to make matches they must complete classroom instruction and receive mentoring, but the unit does not have a formal manual that spells out training requirements, protocols or anything else, Beck said.

The department's "Band-Aid" approach to problems in the fingerprint unit and its failure to produce a comprehensive manual is deeply troubling, said David Grieve, retired training coordinator of the Illinois State Police lab and a former editor of the Journal of Forensic Identification. "If you don't have it written down, people are going to stray, and things are going to become fragmented."

Efforts to evaluate specialists' work have also fallen short. The unit can afford to have an outside testing agency administer and score proficiency exams for only five specialists each year, Beck and Castro said. The rest of the unit is tested, but the scores are tabulated internally by a meager staff of supervisors and, until 2006, there were no consequences for failing. Between 2003 and 2006, Beck said, seven specialists failed proficiency exams. (Currently, a specialist who fails the annual exam is taken off analytical casework until he can be retrained.)

Beck said the department hoped to make sufficient improvements to the unit's facilities and operation in coming years to earn accreditation by the national board that governs crime labs. He declined to comment on who in the department was to blame for the unit's failures.

"For whatever reason, this is something that hasn't received sufficient attention," he said.

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joel.rubin@latimes.com

richard.winton@latimes.com

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