Budget cuts ordered by Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca have undermined his agency's ability to collect and analyze fingerprint evidence, causing delays for more than 65 homicide investigations and resulting in the destruction of potential leads in scores of other crimes.
Baca cut overtime expenses for 59 fingerprint specialists in an effort to help make a $128-million budget cut. The move has delayed the collection of evidence in crimes such as burglaries by as much as a week or more.
Some burglary victims have had to stay away from parts of their homes or temporarily close their businesses to avoid smudging prints and destroying potentially vital evidence. For others, the delayed response has been too much of a burden. Sheriff's officials estimate that since the cuts went into effect in March, 10% of burglary victims have simply cleaned up and moved on with their lives because they couldn't afford to wait.
By comparison, the LAPD says its average response time for collecting prints is 24 to 48 hours.
The sheriff's cost-saving move has also contributed to a backlog of more than 100 prints waiting to be analyzed and compared against a statewide database. Among those cases is evidence collected from 68 homicides, authorities say.
There's no way of predicting how many crimes could have been solved but weren't as a result of the lag, but fingerprints are known to be one of the most reliable pieces of evidence in cracking cases.
Carla Copeland's two-bedroom apartment in Gramercy Park was burglarized a month ago. The 39-year-old's flat-screen TV was gone, her computer monitor was yanked out of the outlet, drawers were pulled open and closets rummaged through. She figured her home would be covered with the culprits' fingerprints. Half a dozen other units in the complex had also been recently burglarized, and a fingerprint match would have spelled hope for getting her possessions back.
Sheriff's deputies told her forensic experts would take prints.
"But they couldn't tell me when," Copeland recalled. "They said it was no telling."
For days, she and her 16-year-old daughter tiptoed around the affected areas, careful to avoid sullying any prints. A week passed, followed by another, and prints were never taken. Eventually the two cleaned up, no longer able to allow their home to look like a disaster zone. Fingerprints around the home have almost certainly been destroyed, Copeland said.
Lt. Leonard McCray of the Compton Sheriff's Station said he started receiving calls several weeks ago from burglary victims upset that no one from the department had shown up to take prints.
"There are often times when the citizen opts to not wait," he said. "And that impacts our ability to solve crimes."
McCray said his station is fortunate to have an in-house print taker, but he says one person cannot tackle the backlog of burglary cases alone.
In May, for example, the Sheriff's Department fielded 1,110 calls for fingerprinting at burglary scenes. Of those, 122 were canceled because the property owners decided not to continue to preserve the scene, according to forensics records.
Before the cuts, crime lab employees were working about 600 hours of overtime a week to collect and analyze fingerprints, among other duties. That number has been cut to less than 100 hours.
The good news, sheriff's officials say, is the department is on track to meet its goal of reducing the budget by $128 million before the next fiscal year.
"The bad news is some things are not being done," sheriff's spokesman Steve Whitmore said. "It makes it very difficult, sometimes impossible, whenever you can't collect evidence."
In a written report to the L.A. County Board of Supervisors, Baca said the department cut overtime by 57% during a recent two-week stretch, compared with averages during the last fiscal year.
But the savings have been costly in other ways, particularly in the crime lab, he said.
"These deferred responses have resulted in valuable fingerprint evidence being lost when property owners are unwilling or unable to wait the extended period of time," Baca said in the report.
Sitting inside her ground-floor apartment, her TV stand still bare, Copeland said she was frustrated that more wasn't done to investigate her burglary. She believes the fingerprints left behind might have been matched with those at the scenes of other nearby home invasions.
"I honestly think they should have done it that day," she said. "When they investigate a crime, they should do it that day so it'll be fresh."