The DNA section of HPD's crime lab was shut down in 2002, after an audit showed the lab producing questionable results under shoddy work conditions. The department lost accreditation and has now been overhauled with new personnel, a renovated work environment and new management. HPD Crime Lab Assistant Director Irma Rios says it took longer than she had hoped to get the lab running again, partly because it was difficult to find qualified employees.
"It was a combination of the salary was an issue, the other thing I asked individuals 'why would you want to come and work at the Houston Police Department, we've been under fire for so long' and there were some people that were reluctant because of the intense scrutiny. But now, things have changed, the accreditation is a big plus. People have questions whether the lab was going to survive in the end or was going to be closed."
HPD now requires all DNA examiners to have at least a bachelor's degree in Biology or a related field. They also must go through six months of training before taking on cases. Rios says the 12 DNA examiners are handling about 10-15 cases per week and will slowly increase the number.
"The examiners are very dedicated, they've been working very hard. Several of them have been hired in 2004-2005 and they've gone through -- we've spent about $80,000 in training alone for DNA so it just gives you an idea how much work we've put in."
Right now the focus is on producing verifiable results. Rios admits the lab lost credibility and still has a lot of challenges to regain that. She says that's why they're starting off slowly and keeping the workload small.
"Our strategy, I think it's working right now with the accreditation and from what we hear going and giving talks to the public, the accreditation is a big plus for us and just doing the work right is very important. And it will take time, it's just going to take some time."
The HPD DNA Lab is fully accredited, but for only one year. HPD will have to undergo another audit next year to renew their full-term certification. Laurie Johnson Houston Public Radio News.