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Official urges audit of fingerprint lab

October 18, 2008|Richard Winton | Times Staff Writer

Los Angeles Police Commission President Anthony Pacheco on Friday ordered the panel's civilian watchdog to investigate disclosures that the LAPD's fingerprint experts have bungled cases and implicated the wrong people in crimes.

Pacheco -- responding to a story in The Times on Friday -- expressed outrage that top LAPD officials had not informed his five-member board about the extent of the problems in the department's Latent Print Unit.

"It is of great concern to me that I learned of such a critically important matter -- one where the deficiencies are not tolerable -- from the media," Pacheco said. "This matter should have been presented to us years ago," he added, noting that the problems in the unit dated back at least to 2006.

According to a confidential LAPD report obtained by The Times, two people had criminal charges against them dropped because the LAPD's fingerprint print experts erroneously identified them as suspects. The 10-page report said shoddy work and poor oversight have plagued the fingerprint unit and recommended that independent auditors be brought in to determine the scope of the problems.

LAPD officials said they did not know how many other people might have been wrongly accused over the years as a result of poor fingerprint analysis and did not have the funds to pay for a comprehensive audit to find out.

Pacheco said he was not satisfied with such a response. He said he has directed the LAPD to give the commission a full briefing on the matter and asked the commission's inspector general to conduct a top-to-bottom review of the unit.

The commission's president was not the only public official who expressed concern. Councilman Jack Weiss, who heads the council's Public Safety Committee, said he planned to hold a hearing on the matter. A spokeswoman for the district attorney's office said prosecutors were reviewing the issue. And the county's public defender called for hiring an independent auditor.

Assistant Chief Sharon Papa, who is the top commander overseeing the LAPD's support services, said at a news conference Friday that mistakes were made, but that they were not pervasive and procedures have since been changed to prevent errors.

"This is not a widespread problem," she said.

Papa said the department had wanted to hire an outside fingerprint consultant to review the unit's work but could not get $400,000 to $500,000 from the city to fund the effort. She said LAPD officials are again seeking the funds. She acknowledged that an independent review was partly needed to bolster the credibility of the department's fingerprint work.

"Any organization where you've got people involved, mistakes get made, work gets sloppy," Papa said.

She said the department has put in place a verification process involving at least three analysts working independently.

As a result of the problems that were discovered, Papa said, one analyst was fired, three others were suspended and a new official was placed in charge of the unit. Papa said analysts must now also take regular exams.

She said the department has apologized to the two people who were wrongly charged.

--

richard.winton@latimes.com

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